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Planning and re-zoning - some musings

Trying to do what is right
Warwick Jones

We don't attempt to cover City and County Planning in any detail. There is not enough time available. But sometimes we find ourselves at a hearing, because of the importance, such as the proposed Long Savannah Plantation subdivision, or because there is a matter which affects our own local community. Usually in the case of the latter, the issue is only one of many before the commission or board. So there is plenty of time to listen and reflect. And sometimes the issues are provocative.

Where were the citizens who opposed development?
Take the issue of a rezoning from Residential to Commercial that was before the Planning/ Public Works Committee of County Council this week. It was a building lot on Venning Road, just off Hungry Neck Boulevard. In case you have not been following it, residents have been very vocal in opposing development that impinges on the residential nature of the surrounding community. This opposition has been spurred lately by the plans of Mount Pleasant Council to provide some relief to the heavy traffic on Highway 17 by developing and extending Hungry Neck Boulevard.

If the re zoning application were granted, a precedent would have been created for more commercial property along Venning Road and a first step towards commercial property ultimately extending into that part of the residential community. Yet despite the significance, it seems not one person showed up to oppose the development when it went to the Planning Commission.

Some members of the County Council were confused. Where was the opposition? How could the community not be opposed? If the community were not opposed, should the request therefore be granted? Council in its wisdom deferred a decision to get a better understanding of what the community really wanted.

We have two comments. Folk who oppose a rezoning should be sure to speak at public hearings. Many officials are inclined to grant requests if there is no public opposition. So go and be heard. But the officials should also be aware that it is not easy for most folk to get away from jobs or other activities to be at public meetings. Most meetings are not held at the most convenient times during the day. We also observe that developers often shoot for hearings in the middle of the holiday season when a lot of folk are away. And then there is the issue of proper and conspicuous notice to those who are affected. We believe that officials should be held to account to do what is right by a community even if no one speaks at public hearings.

Doing good or bad?
Habitat for Humanity has a deserved excellent reputation of providing "affordable housing" for the needy. The Charleston unit has been very active and has built a number "affordable housing" units in the City, particularly on the Peninsula and Neck area. It makes frequent appearances before the City's Board of Zoning Appeals to get variances and special exceptions for its houses. It strongest argument for not fully complying with existing ordinances is that it is providing a needed service to the community's working poor.

But enough is enough said the Westside Neighborhood President last week. The Westside community may be poor but it has pride. The houses that are being built by H for H are detracting from the appearance of the community and the special exceptions are creating a density that does not allow for green space or sufficient parking. Most of the existing houses are "freeman cottages" and single story. The two story, multifamily dwellings proposed by H for H are out of character and should not be allowed.

The BZA allowed the first application by the H for H but after a member of the audience rose and spoke about the not very even-handed approach to the issue - the concerns of a neighborhood are usually taken seriously by the BZA but in this case, they were being ignored. The Board decided to defer on the remaining 2 applications by the non-profit. So what is right? Should a non-profit be allowed to build residences that detract from the neighborhood just because it is catering to the poor?

State Law makes it all moot
And then there was the issue of McLeod Plantation. Two years ago, the BZA granted the School of Building Arts (SOBA) a special exception allowing a school facility in a residential area, i.e. McLeod Plantation/ County Club area. Invoking the newly enacted SC Vested Rights Act, the attorney for SOBA argued for the approval of the extension. As the wording of the Act prevented any meaningful debate, the BZA's hands were tied and it acquiesced.

The Vested Right Act grants 5 one-year extensions to a developer to fulfill the obligations associated with a rezoning or special exception. Over this period, it seems the community has little ability to seek a change, even if there has been a change in circumstances.

SOBA had not complied with the conditions imposed by the BZA at the first hearing. If it had been necessary, SOBA probably would argue that it could not comply because litigation instigated by Friends of McLeod had restricted its ability to comply. The Friends would have argued that SOBA is attracting only a handful of students and it is ridiculous that so much should be given up by the Citizens of Charleston for so few. And besides, the Charleston City Comprehensive Design, mandated by the State should have been applied. If it had the re zoning would not have been possible.

We won't address the merits of the arguments because it was all moot. But we understand that the Friends are persevering with their appeals though the Courts

Makes you wonder why the issue was even brought before the BZA again, a question that the Chairman was not able to answer. .

And for some there is no explanation
And then there was the case of a special exception granted to a delicatessen to sell wine and beer on Bull Street. The exception was granted earlier this year over the strong objections by the Neighborhood. We don't know whether the neighborhood appealed to the BZA but like most appeals (we think all appeals but are not certain) the decision must have been upheld. So the neighborhood resorted to legal action. We don't know what subsequently transpired but the owner of the delicatessen had an application to amend the special exception before the BZA this week.

Nobody turned up, for either the owner or the neighborhood. The BZA scratched its head and deferred the issue. And the City is adamant that all were informed of the hearing!!

It matters who you are
Comments by a prominent member of the City Zoning staff tested the depths of possible hypocrisy at the last BZA meeting. He was waxing about the City's concerns for setbacks and buffers, and the need for developers to accede to what is stipulated. At issue was property on St Andrews Boulevard. The City has decided that all structures should be at the front of the property and parking at the back. It seems this is a recent change with the purpose to make the Road more attractive looking . Noble as the City's desire might be, many properties have structures at the back and the parking in front. The change now imposed makes a difference to buffers and in the case of the applicant, cuts considerably from the parking. He wanted an exception but the BZA said "tough", and denied the application.

Some members of the audience wanted to jump up and remind the Staff member of his correspondence with Clemson when it was planning for the School for Architecture on its George Street site. The school and its location were supported by the City, though strongly opposed by the neighborhood and others. The buffer width on one side of the property was reduced at each reinterpretation of the regulations by the City. When it came to the back wall of the school, there was to be no buffer. The back wall was to be built right next to existing condominiums and the windows of the condominiums were to be bricked up. Fortunately. Clemson has abandoned its plans to build on the George Street property and the issue of buffers has become moot.