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Board of Zoning Appeals February 21

Board defers decision on church conversion
Little encouragement for opponents
Warwick Jones

Those of us at the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) meeting on Tuesday evening and opposed to the church conversion had little to be pleased about. Before the BZA was the issue as to whether to allow the conversion of a church in Wraggborough to a 400-seat theater - the imposition of a commercial use in the heart of a residential neighborhood. It was not the decision in itself that was displeasing - a decision was deferred until the next meeting - it was the seeming indifference of some members to citizens' concerns, and the attitude or lack of understanding of some other members of the Board.

A hard decision
We concede that this issue was difficult for the BZA because there could be an adverse impact whatever way the BZA swung. The church building is beautiful and needs restoration. The membership of the church is not growing and the cost of restoration is beyond the reach of the congregation. Better to sell the church and move to North Charleston or West Ashley. Charleston Stage needs a home while the Dock Street Theater is being renovated. This renovation will begin in a year or so and take about 2 years. The Patrick family, patron of the theater group, has offered to buy the church and convert it to a 400-seat theater. The converted church will be used as a substitute for Dock Street in the years that it is being renovated. Beyond that, it will continue to be used as a theater and for smaller productions than those at Dock Street.

Preservation groups supported conversion
The supporters of the Patrick family's plans were largely those connected with the theater company, Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society. We have high respect for the latter entities and acknowledge their preservation efforts. Their primary motivation was the retention and preservation of the church. The Patrick Family has promised to leave the interior largely intact so the structure could be converted back to a church if circumstances allowed. There were also other supporters - they included members of the church congregation and a member of the HCF board who spoke of the benefit to the community of having a theater in its midst. Mrs. Patrick is a board member of HCF and Mr. Glenn Keyes, who is the architect for the Patrick family is a past president of the Preservation Society. And finally, we must mention the City who opined that the use conversion met every one of the variances tests.

Community united in opposition
Arrayed against the formidable group of supporters were the residents of Wraggborough Community, some neighborhood association presidents, Save the City, some members of the church congregation and other interested citizens. There was praise for the efforts of the theater company, and those of the Patricks, for what both had done for the community. But the major issue - the detriment to the community - was not fully addressed by the proponents of the conversion. There was no way the community would escape the adverse effect of 400 theater patrons and the parking of their cars on the nights that the theater was open. The serenity of the neighborhood would be shattered, the speakers said. They also said there were other possible uses for the church building and not all alternatives had been explored.

The Variance test
Below we reproduce the 4 tests than an applicant for a variance must meet for the BZA to grant a variance.

Sec. 54-924. Requirements for granting a variance.
A variance may be granted in an individual case of unnecessary hardship if the Board makes and explains in writing the following findings:
a. there are extraordinary and exceptional conditions pertaining to the particular piece of property;
b. these conditions do not generally apply to other property in the vicinity;
c. because of these conditions, the application of the ordinance to the particular piece of property would effectively prohibit or unreasonably restrict the utilization of the property; and
d. the authorization of a variance will not be of substantial detriment to adjacent property or to the public good, and the character of the district will not be harmed by the granting of the variance.
However, an affirmative vote of two-thirds ( 2/3) of the Board members present and voting shall be required before a variance may be granted for a use of land, a building or a structure that is prohibited in a given district by ordinance or resolution; provided, however, that City Council may overrule the decision of the Board within ten (10) days following the decision of the Board.
(Ord. No. 1999-54, • 3A, 4-27-99)

Chairman warns speakers to speak to the variance tests
Board Chairman Krawcheck drew attention of the need for speakers to address the variance conditions when they spoke. They should not be side-tracked by emotional concerns which were irrelevant to the tests to which the BZA must put the issue. Despite this, many speakers for the conversion wandered off the track. The chairman repeated his request after the attendees listened to a lengthy history of the church He also repeated it after one member of the board spoke at the opening of the discussion and went off on a tangent. The Chairman opined correctly we believe, that the major issue was Paragraph d, highlighted above. He also opined that the applicant met the test of the other paragraphs. He may be right in this too and we won't make them an issue.

Chairman concerned only about impact on housing close to the church
But we were concerned to hear him say that he believed that the theater and the attendant parking would have no adverse impact on the district. However, he was concerned about the impact on residents in Houston House, a nearby structure. Board member Altman was concerned about the impact of parking on the community. The theater was relying on a parking facilities being incorporated into the Federal building re-development. It may have been promised space by the City in this development but the completion of the project could be 5 years away, not just 3 years as assumed by the theater and developer. We also add that the site is owned by the Federal government and there are many hoops through which the development must step before it can be started, let alone completed. Board member Altman seemed unconvinced that other spaces, such as the Federal building site prior to construction and in parking areas further a field would be satisfactory in the interim. These views were shared by another Board member who seconded Board member Altman's motion to deny the application.

More time for applicant to address parking issue
But Board member Smith felt it would be a shame to deny the request and that the applicant should have more time to work out the parking issues and this was seconded by Board member Small and endorsed by Board member Robinson. The previous motion for denial was withdrawn and members voted unanimously for deferral.

Concerns with the BZA
We are not a fan of the BZA with its collective decisions in relation to major issues when the City has expressed a positive opinion. Too often has it seemed to lean unreasonably towards the City. And this seems a view of a large number of citizens and citizen groups. We concede the difficulty of the issue before the BZA relating to the church conversion and that a decision to deny the application may arguably preserve the ambience of the community but at the cost of the Church's preservation. But it is concerning when Board members have to be reminded by the Chairman of the variance test and that they must dismiss other more emotional issues in their consideration. It is also concerning that some Board members clearly come to a meeting with a bias. This is a charge that probably could be leveled at all of us. But Board member Smith could probably make a greater effort to compensate rather than declare her disappointment with possibly having to vote against an applicant and ask for the applicant to be given more time to make a better case.

Has the effect on the community really been addressed?
And then there is the real issue of detriment to the community. Chairman Krawcheck plainly stated that he did not believe that there would be any adverse impact. Every speaker that opposed the variance had a contrary view. And the majority of these speakers were residents of the area. And as one resident noted, all those in favor of the variance, were not residents. How could Chairman Krawcheck have this opinion? One speaker who resided near the Dock Street Theater spoke of the noises and problems relating to the operation of the theater, particularly to the moving of stage props at night. He claimed that residents did not remain long in the area. And as for parking, it may be possible at the proposed new development at the nearby Federal Building site. But completion of the development could be years away and it was only a promise. How could the City promise something over which it did not have complete control? Besides, theater patrons often use a garage as a last resort and prefer to cruise a neighborhood looking for parking spots. This would most likely be the case for the new theater. And how much traffic could it generate each night - 100, 200 or more trips?

A feeling of frustration and despair
The decision of the BZA may still be a denial of the request. But many of us left the hearing with a sense of frustration and despair. The same question continues to be asked. Is the BZA really listening to citizens' concerns and does the City have such a sway over the collective mind of the BZA? And the despair relates as to what happens in the longer term. There may be other churches that will want or need to close their doors. How to deal with this remains an issue. But the conversion to a commercial use will have a precedent if the BZA approves this variance. And it usually a precedent that is the lever to something that becomes commonplace. Communities need to be concerned.

Council member may take issue to City Council
City Council member Mitchell also spoke at the meeting and asked for the request to be denied. He felt very strongly about the issue and said the residential nature of the community must be preserved. If the variance was granted, he would take the issue directly to City council, an action that is permitted under the ordinance. We hope the Councilmember