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Board of Zoning Appeals January 4

Is there a 10 year lease or not?
Can the City please explain?
Warwick Jones, Editor

An issue before the Boiard of Zoning Appeals lst night was a 4 story devepment at 418 Meeting Street. It entails near 40,000 sq ft and would be largely office space The developer is seeking some varfiaicnes and exceptions. One of the exceptions relates to parking The ordinance states that if the developer can't provide all on-site parking then the balance must be provided at a location within 400 feet and under a long term lease of at least 10 years. This development is required to provide 47 parling spaces but there is only room for 18 on site, the develooper must provide for another 29 spaces off site within the 400 feet restriction.

Mr Bachman Smith representing the developer, told the Board that the developer had arranged a 10 year lease with the City in the garage adjacent to the Visitors Parking Center for the 29 off-site parking spaces; part of the variance request also dealt with this off-site location being beyond the 400 feet limit. As we had attended the City Council meeting when this off-site parking lease was approved, we were more than a little surprised at the mention of the 10 year lease term. We never heard it mentioned and the copy of the lease we had made no mention of it either. Indeed, the lease says that the agreement could be terminated by the City with 6 months notice. We pointed this out to the Board and Mr Bachman later apologized. He said it must have been a misunderstanding in his discussions with the developers, one principal being City Council Member Fishburne.

But what we find troubling is the statement by Ms Yvonne Fortenberry, Director of Planning, who tried to explain the discrepancy by stating that the matter was complicated and had something to do with bond issues and the agreement had to be wrapped in some legalese, I wonder whether any of the council members who approved the short term leases knew that there was an understanding and it was an implied lease for 10 years. The period of 10 years never came up in the discussion at the Council meeting. Council Member George was concerned about the lease and the possible loss of space for visitors. We asked him whether he knew about an implied 10 year term in the agreement. He said that he did not recall any reference to a 10 year lease period, but would check to confirm the wording of the agreement presented to Council.

We ask the question as to why the City did not inform the Board that a 10 year lease did not exist. The 10 year lease is a major stipulation in the ordinance and without our comment the board could well have thought a long term lease existed, passed the exception and approved the project. The City, in its presentation which supported the exceptions and variances, also said that the developer had the option to build to a height of over 100 feet in the front portion of the proposed structure. The ordinance allowed a structure to have a height be 3 times the distance from the structure's roadside wall to the center of the street. We don't dispute the math but we would remind the City of the assurances it gave when the new CIty height restrictions were put in place last year. It said that the Zoning Board and the BAR would not allow such high structures because they would be out of character with the surrounding structures. The City did advise the developer of 418 Meeting Street to go no higher than 55 feet, But to suggest that 100 ft was a real option is disingenuous.

Citizens of Charleston deserve better from the City's Planning. Projects before the Board of Zoning Appeals or any other board should be fully scrutinized and all facts presented. In this case, facts were withheld. When a city Council member is involved with the development, the deal should be totally transparent.

The Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society also opposed the variance and exceptions, taking issue with not only with parking but with the height variance as well. The ordinance limits height to 50 ft at the rear end of the proposed structure where it would abut residential properties. The Board understandably wanted additional clarification on the lease issue and some other matters. A decision was deferred until the next meeting of the Board.

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