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City Council Meeting September 26

More on Crime
Compromise of sorts on height limit for commercial buildings
Marc Knapp

The days may now be getting shorter but City Council meetings are not. Including that of the Ways and Means, last night's meeting took the best part of 4 ½ hours. Certainly there were matters of importance to discuss but the time was swollen by the Mayor's televised speech on crime, a 15 minute break to allow him to attend to other business, and then the innumerable presentations and awards that accompany every Council meeting, many of which seem trivial or unnecessary. The real business of Council took probably only half the session.

Impassioned speech but hardly new
The growing incidence of violent crime is probably the major concern of most citizens in the City. And the Mayor spoke strongly last night about his concerns, the need to address the problem, and his plans for action. The speech was televised, and probably much of what he proposed was heard for the first time by many citizens. But for us that attend Council meetings, there wasn't much that was new, at least in broad terms. The speech was fully reported in the Post and Courier and we refer readers to its report for details.

As before, the Mayor proposed stricter laws, stricter enforcement and harsher punishment for those involved in violent crime. He noted that many of those arrested for crimes were already on probation or awaiting trial for other crimes. Many of these people should be in jail and not out on the streets. He wanted mandatory sentences for violent crimes. He called for the hiring of more judges, prosecutors and probation offices. The workload on the Circuit Court judges in South Carolina was the highest of any State in the US, he said. He called for changes in the State law to allow probation officers to undertake warrant-less searches.

We hope the Mayor succeeds in his efforts. He proposes to address the Criminal Justice System Task Force in October. The Task Force is looking into the steps necessary to better confront crime issues in the State and will make recommendations to the Legislature next year.

Second reading of anti-loitering ordinance
Allied to the City fight against crime but not mentioned in his speech last night was the City's new anti-loitering ordinance. The ordinance had been considered at earlier meetings of Council and the final version was before Council last night. Press here to see. The ordinance is designed to help stop drug dealing, and amongst other things, will give judges the ability to ban felons or those waiting trial from certain areas i.e. drug dealing hot spots such as parts of the Eastside. The City also hopes that the wording of the ordinance will allow its enforcement without falling foul of constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

Citizens still unhappy with maximum height proposals
Height issues for Commercial buildings outside the Historic Districts, generated most of the heat at last night's meeting. Earlier this year, the City proposed a limitation of 55 feet to replace the 3X system that prevailed over most of the City area. Many citizens opposed the change and asked for more time for consideration. As a result, voting was deferred. Although there had been opportunity for consideration and a number of public meetings, citizens and interested groups sought a further deferral. Many of the council members were sympathetic to these requests. But following the Mayor's plea for approval, the majority of Council voted for the change. Presumably they were swayed by the recognition on the part of the Mayor and staff that grounds existed for much higher limits in certain areas and the promise of sympathetic consideration for variances and exceptions.

The 3X height limitation has been in place for decades and was described as "prehistoric and a relic". In effect, the height limit is a function of the distance from the middle of the street to the building line on the property. If the distance is say 100 ft, then the height can be 3 times this distance i.e. 300 feet. It was because of the possibility of very tall structures that the City moved to reduce the height limit. It was supported by the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation.

"One size fits all" will not work
We like the idea of the changed height limitation and concede that the 3X system was too generous. But as we said at an earlier meeting, the "one size fits all" approach just will not work. The City to some extent attempted to address this problem and called for even lower maximum heights for structures in Commercial Transition zones and Business Parks. It also allowed schools and churches to build to a height of 80 ft and all structures to add another 15 ft to height for necessary utilities such as lift towers, air and heating. It also noted that the Holiday Inn by the Ashley River Bridge was 160 ft tall. Staff proposed that the height limitation in the surrounding lots should be 80 ft.

But these proposals did little to satisfy most of the speakers at the meeting. It was just not flexible enough and the 55 foot limitation was inappropriate for many areas, they said. There was also the possibility of a suit against City by owners who stand to lose value. Also, many owners of commercial property did not know what was proposed. The advertising for the public meetings was poor and unnoticed. Staff said there were probably 1000 owners of commercial property that would be affected. It was onerous to notify each owned separately as suggested by some speakers.

Holiday Inn area special
A speech by the unassuming owner of a lot near the Holiday Inn probably moved Council members more than anything else. The City proposed an 80/30 height district around the Holiday Inn and the lot he owned fell into this district. He noted that he acquired the lot some 6 years ago and had been working for some time on a design for a 107 foot tall structure. He said that the 80 ft limit would not work for him. He argued that a taller building would fit in better with the existing Holiday Inn structure. It probably did not please the Mayor to hear City staff member Eddie Bello quoted as saying that it is "unfortunate to discuss the height of the building without having seen the design".

Uncomfortable about new ordinance
We have an uncomfortable feeling about the new ordinance. The Mayor said it was necessary to get the old limitation off the books and we agree. But we now have a new height limit which the Mayor has promised will not be enforced without full consideration of the merits of a higher structure for any particular development. Sounds like a pretty weak ordinance to us. We suspect that the Mayor's desire for closure reflected the fact that the ordinance has been before Council for nearly 6 months and if not voted on, its passage would need to start from scratch again. But it does seem that a deferral and an attempt to define specific areas with their own height limitation might be a better option - more certainty for property owners, less confusion as to what is possible and less opportunity for law suits.

Need for more information
It has been a frequent cause of irritation for us. The City makes changes to an ordinance. It produces the new ordinance but there is nothing in the public documents indicating what has been changed relative to the old ordinance. A synopsis as to what has been changed would be very helpful, particularly when an ordinance runs to many pages. Legal language is not the easiest to decipher and we mere citizens need help.

There were public hearings on two ordinances before Council last night where we could have used some help. The first was the creation of 2 new Zonings a) Mixed Use 1 - workforce Housing District and b) Mixed Use 2 - workforce Housing District, The second was an amendment to Accommodation uses

New zoning to encourage "affordable housing"
In its introduction of the new zonings, the City said "These districts are intended to promote the mixture of housing opportunities within a single development, along with appropriate of nonresidential uses by providing incentives for the creation of such developments in urban areas of the city, where on street parking or other public parking is customary and can be reasonably accommodated".

It seems the new ordinance is specifically designed for the Peninsula, and the more blighted sections. It is also designed for areas where there is no shortage of space for "off street" parking. The purpose of the ordinance is to encourage the building of "affordable housing" units, euphemistically now called "work force" housing. To do this the City has introduced specific height, setback and parking regulations. Presumably they are less stringent than the zonings that might have been considered prior to the creation of the new districts. Figures relating to height and setbacks were not contained in the documents circulated last night. But for parking, the new districts will require 1 car space for every 2 residential units. Developers will not need to provide parking spaces for the first 5000 feet of development dedicated to commercial use. Nor will there be a requirement for "off street" loading requirements.

Good idea? We don't know. But Council member Fishburne was enthusiastic. Council member Lewis was skeptical. He noted that the majority of workers at the 4 largest institutions in the City were paid wages that were too low to allow them to qualify for housing defined as "affordable". He didn't seem to think the new zonings would make a difference.

And as for the amendments related to Accommodations, the City said that the amendment related to definitions. It was to include Residential Membership Clubs to Accommodation entities regulated by the Ordinance. The Preservation Society spoke for the amendment with nobody against it.

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