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City Council July 18

City attempts to "tidy up" zoning and height restrictions
Mayor seeks to toughen penalties for violent crime
Marc Knapp

With 57 public hearings scheduled, the agenda for last night's City Council looked formidable. It was formidable, but not as much as it appeared. Many of the hearings related to annexations and the proposed ordinances were adopted without discussion. However, those relating to changes in the Neck area and West of the Ashley were important and generated much discussion.

More uniformity to zoning and height districts
Over the last year or so, the City has attempted to "tidy up" zoning and height restrictions on the Peninsula. It is now attempting to do the same in other parts of the City. Ms. Yvonne Fortenberry, the director of Design, Development and Preservation said the City was trying to bring more uniformity to zoning and height districts. Speaking in relation to the proposals for the Neck area, she said that the City recognized that it was only a first step and that finer tuning was necessary. It was also recognition that the character of the Neck area was changing, with a likelihood of a considerable increase in residential development.

A lot of down zoning changes
We won't attempt to summarize all of the "down zoning" changes proposed by the City for the Neck area but we would characterize them as being "residential friendly" with many zonings, for example, changed from General Business to Residential, and Industrial to General Business. The City also recognized that industry still operated in the Neck and no attempt was made to rezone those active properties. The City also planned on introducing the 55/30 feet maximum/minimum height restrictions.

Too broad brush
I thought that the City's proposed action was too "broad brush" and said so during the hearing. A number of residents, and the Ginn Company which is planning a major development in the Neck, also had concerns about the restrictions the new regulations imposed and how inappropriate they would be. There were a large number of residents from James and Johns Island who spoke of the proposals and who were irritated that no warning had been given about the proposed changes. They learned of them only from the newspaper report that morning.

We think citizens deserved proper notice
The Mayor made it very clear, in a very arrogant tone, that the Supreme Court had upheld a city's right to make and change zoning regulations. We think the Mayor missed the point. The citizens who spoke were not concerned with the City's right to make zoning rules. They were upset that the changes were being made without proper notice to the public. The agenda for the Council meeting gave no clue as to what was being changed. To comprehend the changes, a citizen needed to refer to the ordinance and in particular to those parts that refer to height restrictions in the West Ashley area. Without the ordinance, a citizen would have no idea as to what the city was up to.

Several land owners and developers did show up to make comments but as one land owner representative asked, where were the rest of the affected people? She had a map showing it would affect somewhere around one thousand land owners just in the west Ashley area. The clear inference was that they did not know what the City proposed. And they ought to have been given proper notice.

The decision on changes in the Neck area was deferred at the request of Council member Gallant. He said that a number of residents were unable to attend public meetings and they sought more information. Council agreed to defer a decision, but it voted to accept the recommendations relating to areas West of the Ashley.

Mayor wants harsher penalties for violent crime
Sadly, crime continues to be an issue before City Council. Against the background of shootings on the Battery the previous night, Mayor Riley spoke at length of the City's efforts to deal more harshly with violent crime. He noted that although the crime rate was down in the City, the violent crime rate was up. He had spoken with the circuit judges. and the County solicitor, seeking harsher penalties for violent crime. He wanted to ensure that the use of a gun in a felonious act would mean certain jail. His legal audience, it seemed, was sympathetic.

New unit formed
The City has formed a special unit to deal with the recidivist problems. It is headed by Sergeant Fitz, who spoke to the Council last night. To assist arraignment and prosecution, the unit is developing a recidivist database. It presently comprises 112 persons. The unit was liaising with other police departments and other agencies in gathering information.

Disquieting facts
What we found surprising was the length of time between the crime and the beginning of the subsequent jail time. Sometimes this period was as much as two years. Its length has also prompted police to seek prosecutions in Federal courts where legally possible. Sentencing in these courts tends to be harsher and the jail term beginning within 12 months of the crime. She also spoke of the problems of the probation system, and how many criminals on probation continue to commit crime. Some judges also were very lenient in their attitude to criminals on probation, and willing to overlook or ignore major infractions.

CARTA presents a fuller budget
CARTA's budget for fiscal 2007 was up for approval last night. There was not a great amount of discussion. Council member Fishburne remarked that the documentation was considerably improved over previous years. The report before Council ran to over 30 pages. Previous budget reports were contained on one page.

The problem with this report was that it was a lot of fluff, and short on substance. I had to continually flip back and forth through the pages to make comparisons. If you take the time to analyze the data, something the CARTA board didn't seem to do, fare revenues are running well below budget. Based on 2006 actual revenue to the end of April, fare revenues were 40% short of projections. Despite the poor performance this year, the budget proposed for fiscal 2007 projects nearly the same revenue projected for fiscal 2006. Even worse, the salary, benefits and administration costs are projected to rise 15%, for just four employees. We seriously wonder about the competence of the management and board of CARTA.

Council member Morinelli remarked on the need for more bus shelters and Council member Lewis queried the need for such large marketing spending. Council member Shirley also thought there was scope for increases advertising on the buses.

Press Download file for operating budget and Download filefor the Capital budget

Highlights of the Operating Budget were the $1.1 million drop anticipated in Federal grants because of low ridership last year. This caused a 7 % drop in projected revenue for the year to $13.2 million. Presumably in consequence of lower projected revenue, CARTA reduced its routes, and fixed route costs are projected at $8.659 million, down 6% from the previous year. Fuel costs are also projected to rise 65% in 2007 to $1.05 million.

Ridership trend is up
Mr. Howard Chapman, the director of CARTA commented that the ridership trend continued to upward. Ridership in April was 232,794, up from 60,500 in April 2005 when services were still at a curtailed level. He said that ridership in May and June was 240,000 or above, helped in some measure by high gasoline prices. The Capital Budget was well down from 2006 and reflected the large decline in government grants.

But what do the true ridership figures?
It was not clear whether the ridership numbers included only the true pay-per-ride passengers or also those under new contract services. These services include those for MUSC, the College of Charleston, and the Charleston County School District. The passengers riding under these contracts get to ride either with a pass or at no cost if they are being shuttled on the designated contract routes.

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