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City Council Meeting December 21

Tattoo parlors - First skirmish in a possibly intense battle
Marc Knapp who covers City Council

Last night's Council meeting witnessed a skirmish between those for and against tattoo parlors. In some respects it was a pointless battle because the lines of the issue are not yet defined. The residents of Byrnes Downs had a victory but the fight over tattoo parlors has yet to begin.

The issue before Council was complicated so let me give a background and some facts.

The State has mandated that cities and municipalities define a policy in relation to tattoo parlors. At the moment, Charleston will not permit the operation of a tattoo parlor. Last night, the issue before the Council was the rezoning of some properties in West Ashley from General Business (GB) to Limited Business (LB). One of these properties was planned to host a tattoo parlor if the ordinances were changed in Charleston. GB is the broadest of the zonings and allows the most intense use. Those arguing for the re-zoning stated that it was not really about tattooing but just achieving the right zoning for this area in West Ashley. GB was a zoning appropriate to King Street and Sam Rittenburg Highway they said, but it was not appropriate for an area adjacent to residences such as Byrnes Down.They thought that the small area should be down-zoned

The tattoo protagonists felt the re-zoning was a step to forestall any chance of opening a tattoo parlor. The LB zoning would be too restrictive, they said.

Council Member George suggested the obvious - that there were two issues here and that the City should move as soon as possible to shape its position on "if" and "where" tattooing would be permitted. The Council agreed with this and the City will move to come up with a plan by February. Meanwhile it did approve the re-zoning.

It would be wrong to assume that the favorable vote on the re-zoning portends a hostile attitude on the part of Council to tattooing. Some of the council members confessed to family members bearing tattoos. And indeed Councilmember Shirley confessed to sporting one. These and other council members took exception to the term "sleaze" attributed to people who frequented tattoo parlors. The supporters of tattooing also spoke resentfully of the descriptions in a recent newsletter circulated by the local Neighborhood Association. They pointed out the wide range of people from all socio- economic groups that had been tattooed. They also noted that the industry was regulated and that contrary to what was asserted, the law prohibited a person from being tattooed while intoxicated. Somebody had said that most tattoos were done late at night and on inebriated persons.

Ansonborough residents pleased with withdrawal
The re-development of the Chapter 2 bookstore site on Meeting Street has been a thorn in the side of Ansonborough residents, and others, for some time. The developers want to put a 60,000 sq ft structure on the site to replace the present 6000 sq ft structure. The re-development has failed to obtain variances and exceptions that would allow the proposed developed. The developers recently went before the Planning Commission to have the property re-zoned to Mixed Use, a rezoning that would make it easier to move ahead with the proposed development. The Planning Commission denied the re-zoning but the developer applied to Council regardless.

It didn't come up before Council last night because the developer withdrew the application, according to the Mayor. He said that the application would not come before Council again in its present form. We can only speculate why the developer withdrew the application a few hours before the meeting. A host of people from Ansonborough and surrounding areas were preparing to speak last night. The Historic Charleston Foundation was expected to speak as well. Perhaps this opposition appeared too formidable, particularly as Council had to have a 75% voting approval for the Planning Commission's decision to be overturned.

Public hearing on Neck a fizzle
The Public Hearing on the Tax Increment Financing for the Neck was an anticlimax. A lot of folk at previous council meetings had expressed disappointment at the lack of communication between the City and the developers on the one hand, and the residents on the other. There were very few speakers at last night's meeting. Some stated that they had been told little about the plans and expressed concern as to what will happen to their community. Many of the residents of the Neck are African American and of modest means. They fear the impact of development on property values and thereby property taxes.

The City spoke reassuringly that there would not necessarily be an increase in property taxes and there were plans to take steps to mitigate any adverse financial effect on residents. In response to other questions, the City said there would be provision for "affordable housing", but these things were for future discussion. The TIF proposal was one of the first steps to development. It would allow monies to be borrowed by the City to finance infrastructure. The County Council is expected to agree to place the increased property tax revenue derived from the TIF into a fund that in turn would invest in infrastructure. As we understand it, the County will tax property in the TIF as it does normally i.e. by multiplying assessed values by millage rates. But any tax proceeds above the present level, and which accrues because of the increase in property values following the investment in infrastructure, will be placed into the special fund.

Some of the speakers asked for the plan to be deferred, but the Mayor spoke of the need to move forward and have the TIF approved before the end of this year. This necessity had more to do with appraisals at the year-end and the determination of property taxes than with anything else. To defer the decision into the New Year could create administration problems.

We think the development of the Neck is inevitable. It is perhaps surprising that such a large part of Charleston has remained undeveloped for so long. But the City has to be mindful of the existing communities and at the same time, these communities also need to help themselves. Although the developers of the Neck may be taking some risk, we note the tremendous investment that will be made by the City and County in the area. This investment will help the community and it will certainly help the developers. The City and County, by their financial commitments, have every right to seek much from the developers in giving to the community. The form of the "give back" may be debatable but should include parks and "affordable housing" at least.

And what about the East side?
One wonders what the East side will look like in a few years. The residents' fears of gentrification are well founded. Last night saw the 2nd reading for a re- zoning for properties 398 to 410 Meeting Street. We understand this will be a commercial/ residential development of some size. Parking on site will amount to 94 spaces. Construction is about to start. Some speakers claimed that they were not consulted about the development and fear what will happen to them. A representative of the developer again spoke about the frequent attempts that have been made to talk to residents. He failed to understand how any residents could not have been informed

Councilmember Campbell again spoke of the developments in his area and his concern. He didn't mention it specifically but the new Law School near the Visitors Center is one of those major developments. On completion, it will be catering to over 600 students. Where these students will live is conjectural but it is fair to assume that some, perhaps many, will seek residence on the East Side

And that's what 418 Meeting Street Associates LLC may be anticipating. The LLC is planning a commercial/residential development. The City last night agreed to lease the LLC 40 spaces in the Visitor Center Parking Garage. We don't know the size of the development and how much parking is "on site" but clearly, it is not a small development. Council member Fishburne holds equity in the LLC and recused himself from discussion and the vote. Concerns of Councilmember George about the availability of parking for visitors at the center were allayed by the City, and approval was given.

Mayor slams Council member Campbell
Anybody that had fallen asleep at last night's long meeting must have been suddenly woken towards the end by the lightning-bolt criticism by the Mayor and Council member Tinkler of Council member Campbell. Council memberTinkler said that he learned that a group that was to appear before Council to seek re-zoning had been approached by Council member Campbell to contribute to a fund that supported "affordable housing" on the East Side. The word was not used last night but the allusion to a "shakedown" was clear - you contribute or I don't vote for the re-zoning. The Mayor took up from Council member Tinkler and continued with the same theme. "There can be no quid pro quo on this Council", he said.

Council member Campbell of course repudiated any notion of wrong doing. He did not deny asking for a contribution to the non-profit for "affordable housing" and said that such as request was perfectly legitimate.

We hope that there was no "quid pro quo" and that Council member Campbell was motivated only by concerns for his constituents. But it was foolish to make such a request if he were aware of the re-zoning request to Council. We also note that Council Member Campbell is a constant critic of the mayor. He was reminded last night that if he ever leads with his chin, or drops his guard on a council matter, expect a punch with knock-out velocity. Ouch!

Council member Lewis questions City on Pastors contracts
"Affordable Housing" is a favorite topic of Council member Lewis - there is not enough of it he says. And viewers of this site will note that we have given it some attention lately. On last night's agenda was the rescinding of two contacts relating to the sale of land to Pastors Inc, a non profit group that is involved in "affordable housing". The land was now being sold to other entities. The Council member wanted to know what was going on? One parcel was on Walnut Street and abutted the Crisis Ministries property on Meeting Street. The mayor stated that the land was already being used by Crisis Ministries and was essential to its services. It made sense for Pastors to rescind the contract. Our question is if the land was so necessary to the Crisis Ministries, why was Pastors sold the land in the first place, and for "affordable housing"?

The other parcel, 42 C Street, is now being sold to the New Covenant Evangelistic Center. This group is unknown to Council member Lewis, and to us. Council member Lewis questioned why Pastors was selling and what was the City going to do about the replacing the land in the inventory of properties for "affordable housing"? The mayor replied that there were many initiatives underway in relation to "affordable housing" and the sale would make little difference. Pastors was giving up the land to help the new group establish a larger parcel to establish a church.