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Planning Commission, January 17

First changes in City planning and zoning ordinances approved
BAR to have alternate directors
Warwick Jones

Last night's Planning Commission meeting stretched to 3 hours. Meetings are often longer, and sometimes tedious. It is no wonder that attention of members of the Commission and the public wanders as time progresses, and items at the end of the agenda are threatened with “short shrift� as Commission members tire.

Subdivisions to be "major "or "minor".
If the new director the City’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Economic Innovation has his way, meetings in future will be shorter. As indicated in a presentation to the Planning Commission in December, Mr. Josh Martin outlined a broad plan to divide subdivision approval into ""major" and "minor". The "major" subdivision proposals would continue to be heard before the Planning Commission while the "minor" would be handled by the staff of the City. A "major" subdivision would be defined as " a division of a tract of land into 5 or more parcels". A "minor" subdivision was every thing else though some items such an extension of a right of way or improvements within, a future site for a public school or a park or greenway were considered "major".

Change in process
There would also be a change in the process for handling the "major" subdivisions. The Commission would hear the application and give its decision on a conceptual basis. Ideally there would be only one hearing. Assuming approval is given by the Commission, the staff would have the task of ensuring that the developer fulfilled all the obligations and requirements stipulated in the hearing. If a change were required to the conceptual plan, then the developer must return to the Commission for a ruling. The public could continue to attend and speak at all hearings. As before, City Council needs to approve any decision made by the Commission.

Nobody had any issue with most of what was proposed and Mr. Martin was well complimented. As he said, it is the process we are looking at, and not the substance. The latter will be the second phase. He asked that the proposed process be tried for 6 months to see how it works. If it didn't, then it could be changed.

Approved with only one amendment
The Commission liked it and approved it but with an amendment. The latter reflected unease expressed by some members of the public and the Commission. It related to public input to "minor" subdivisions. Mr. Martin proposed originally that only 24 hours notice to the public be given for a review of a subdivision by City staff. This was not enough. It was ultimately changed to 5 business days. There clearly was some unease about the staff review and the lack of public scrutiny but as Mr. Martin pointed out, most small zoning decisions were made within existing ordinances and that the land owners had the legal right to do what they proposed. In effect, the Commission was only "rubber stamping" many of them. Although public input was desirable, in most instances it would make no difference to the outcome because the law allowed what was proposed.

This ordinance before the Commission last night was the first proposed by the City under the guidance of Mr. Martin. He noted that there were others under consideration. Considering his energy and enthusiasm, we expect it will be only a short time before we see some of the others. Dealing with a matter of “process� is probably the easiest of his tasks. Dealing with the “substance� of ordinances will be much harder and almost certainly will lead to wider differences of opinion. But Mr. Martin has got off to a good start and clearly has generated much good will.

A much needed amendment for the BAR
It was the last item on the agenda and it passed without any dissent. It related to the creation of two alternate members for the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). This was a necessary step in our view to rectify a major deficiency in the review process. The deficiency was highlighted in a meeting last year when the Board was reviewing a major project proposed by the College of Charleston. The project was reviewed by only 3 members of the Board. All other members were either absent or had recused themselves. Indeed, before the hearing started, there were 4 members present, barely a quorum. But on taking their seats, one of the members recused himself because of a clash of interests.

The alternate members, presumably appointed by the Mayor and approved by Council, will be called to sit on a hearing when members recuse themselves. It is the intention of City to recruit past members of the Bar to take on the alternate positions. The City also expects the alternate members to sit at subsequent hearings when the same items come up for hearing.

Other items of interest from last night's meeting included:

Johns Island Community Plan (JICP). Mr. Christopher Morgan, Planning Division Director gave a presentation on the JICP. The presentation was more a broadcast of intentions rather than the formulation of a plan. He noted the City’s desire to be able to maintain the rural ambience of the Island and incorporate the large development that had been proposed. He noted that a charrette was planned in mid to late February to hear the public’s view. More concrete proposals would be made in its aftermath and brought to the Planning Commission sometime thereafter. The plan related only to that area on Johns Island within the Urban Growth Boundary.

Hotel for site just north of Costco in West Ashley. A hotel group successfully requested rezoning for two properties aggregating 16 acres on Ashley Town Center Drive. The properties were to be rezoned General Business and included in the Accommodation overlay. The City staff endorsed the proposal but noted that the site was midway between two Gathering Places defined by the City. A spokesman for the Hotel group noted the virtue of the site for a hotel. It was close to major highways, to restaurants, and to the St Francis Hospital. It noted that quality accommodation facilities were lacking in the area.

Affordable Housing Projects. The Commission approved a subdivision to allow the Episcopal Diocese CHDO to build 5 "affordable housing" units at Porters Court in Cannonborough. These will supplement "affordable housing" already built at Porters Court in recent years. It also rezoned a property at 418 Meeting Street from General Business to Mixed Use Workforce Housing. The present owners previously planned a retail development on the first floor with commercial/residential units above. The group planning to buy the property will retain retail and commercial use on the first floor but develop part of the space for “affordable housing� on the floors above. The Mixed Use Workforce Housing is a relatively new zoning classification devised by the City

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