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Planning Commission taken to task

Disturbing implications of planning process

Louise Pecevich
1029 Stono River Drive

Sir,
How much weight does citizen concern for public safety, health and quality of life carry with City bureaus? Does development trump all? Should a family member's reputation and standing in the community warrant special consideration when it comes to planning and zoning decisions? Does being politically well-connected grant carte blanche?

An article in the Post and Courier regarding the September 20 Planning Commission meeting touched upon some of the issues surrounding a proposed multifamily Planned Unit Development (PUD) on Ferguson Road in James Island. For those in attendance, this process was an illustration of the questionable practices that characterize actions of the Planning staff and Commission. Along with many James Islanders, I was in attendance and offered comments. As abutters, my neighbors and I have had a continued interest in this project. Although this matter pertains specifically to a region of James Island, I believe that the events may echo what other City residents have experienced in their interactions with City personnel. and pose some questions of universal interest.

The property in question contains slightly less than 11 acres, comprised of 3 parcels that in June were consolidated into one plat via transfer into a newly formed LLC. The application process for PUD designation began in or around January. Historically, the various parcels were annexed into the City about 20 years ago, and were zoned Conservation. The owners/developers sought a r ezoning to SR-1 to accomodate 7 single homes and 45 townhouses in a PUD.

It is widely agreed that the project has merit in that the architect has taken into consideration the preservation of the many grand trees that grace this heavily-wooded property. The project was discussed at the previous two Planning Commission meetings, and on both occasions, those who opposed the plan as well as those who supported it commended this aspect of the design. Throughout the entire process, the assumed right of the property owners to proceed with some type of development was never questioned. On no occasion was the Brown family told that they could not build on its land. In fact, every entity wished the Brown family well and sincerely hoped that they would enjoy their property and future homes. Planning Commission members, lauded the Brown family's contributions to the community broadly and often.

Contrary to some suggestion, this family is in no way under siege for seeking to exercise their property rights. But residents who abut this PUD as well as those who live on James Island apparently have no right to traffic mitigation, protection from development-exacerbated flooding and the erosion of their quality of life by yet another massive, out-of-character multifamily development.

This project has numerous deleterious affects on both the immediate locale and
general region:

-The developer's own traffic study confirms what we all know - that the intersection of Camp Road and Riverland Drive is hazardous, and already warrants redesign due to traffic volume. The extra traffic generated by this condominium complex will add to the existing threat to public safety.

-The developer's own drainage/storm water study indicates that one of the drainage basins identified on the property would send runoff into existing swales and ditches running next to and partially through the abutting subdivisions. These conduits are at present inadequate to handle runoff, and during heavy rains back yards in the adjacent subdivision.

-The development is overwhelmingly composed of townhouses that, individually, are approximately twice the size of the typical houses in the immediate vicinity. This large size, combined with the fact that the townhouses are grouped in two- or three-unit buildings, is vastly out of character with the area's single familyneighborhoods.

When this rezoning was first presented to the Planning Commission in August, it was nearly disapproved, with several members, specifically Ms. Ellison, Ms. Lempesis and Mr. Karesh, recommending that the applicants return with a PUD that was less dense, one that would "stem the tide" of rezonings that were no longer appropriate under present conditions. In the nick of time, just before a vote was taken, the plan was snatched from the jaws of disapproval when the applicant's attorney requested a deferral, after repeated prodding to do so from the Planning Commission.

However, at the second hearing on September 20, Commission members who called for changes in this project remained inexplicably silent, even though the project "revision" was merely cosmetic, and did not reduce at all the number of units or density as the Commissioners themselves had requested.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence that was presented illustrating the need for substantive change, and public opinion requesting a plan revision, this rezoning was approved without barely a peep from those who previously questioned its suitability. The Chairman, Mr. McCann, accused the public of trying to deprive the Brown family of its property rights, a baseless statement. He also falsely stated that no one in opposition had suggested any remedy other than "no", but apparently was not listening when many speakers offered the specific option of less units and density as an alternative. Was he paying attention or just impatient to get on with the 41 other matters he complained that he had ahead of him?

The concerns expressed by those who spoke were brushed aside, as Mr. McCann stated that there would be traffic "until the day we die". He also said that "all of Charleston has drainage problems", so we are to presume that flooding should be tolerated. The Commission's previous comments on the inappropriate size and density of this project were forgotten.

If traffic doesn't matter, and drainage doesn't matter, and density doesn't matter, what does matter? Certainly not the concerns of residents who sought mitigation and received no compromise.

Considering all the evidence in this matter, the abrupt reversal of opinion and the decision of the Planning Commission to approve this rezoning seems bsffling and irrational. Why the sudden amnesia and change of heart? Perhaps the only logical explanation is that of political expediency - was it to perpetuate the infrastructure-busting density supported by the current administration, or to perhaps pander to a politically well-connected family?

The property in question was bequeathed to the present owners by their father, the late J. Arthur Brown. Mr. Brown was a renowned figure in the civil rights movement, and a former president of the Charleston County NAACP. The Arthur Brown Collection is housed at the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture. His children were also actively involved in the civil rights struggle in South Carolina.

However, does an illustrious family history warrant a disregard for public safety and opinion via the granting of a politically-motivated rezoning? No matter how well-deserved Mr. Brown's reputation, should this guarantee his descendents a desired result from the Planning Commission or City Council? If fair treatment of all citizens is a tenet held by courageous social activists, should it not be applied in all arenas?

The disturbing implication is that the planning process may pick and choose whose interest it serves. Is this indeed a case of who you know, not what you know? Was approval of this rezoning to accomodate this project just a bone thrown to the developer, or a favor granted from those in high places? Seemingly, the process does not serve the greater good, at least not the public's.

Now, to borrow a phrase from Mr. McCann - Is this fair? Is this justice?

Your Comments:

It's sad that we citizens have to listen to illogical and rude comments from politicians when they would never tolerate such comments coming from a member of the public. Judging from the words and deeds of our so-called leaders, they've forgotten who is supposed to be in charge. Hopefully, this election cycle will bring about some changes. We certainly need more people in office who understand the mood of the people when it comes to over-development on James Island and elsewhere.

Posted by: Lee in Wagener Terrace at October 23, 2006 02:01 PM

This all played itself out at the City Council meeting on October 24. No amount of logical or factual discussion made any dent in the plans of the powers-that-be. The entire discussion was about well the family was known by the Mayor, City Councilors and Planning staff. Ms. Bleecker, in whose district the property is located, forgot that she represented any other constituents and waxed on about how close she was to the family. She also forgot much of the truth in describing her interactions with abutters to the property in question. To top it all off, Wendell Gilliard labeled those in opposition as racists. It's scary to think that someone displaying such ignorance and arrogance can actually be elected to public office.

Posted by: Louise Pecevich at October 25, 2006 05:01 PM

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