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City Council, January 27

Council member seeks wider discussion over BAR
Fort Pemberton rezoning approved
Marc Knapp

Two items consumed nearly all of the discussion at last night’s City Council meeting, The items were creation of “alternate” membership for the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) and the approval of a rezoning of the 7.4 acres that surround Fort Pemberton on James Island. Both were approved, but the discussion on BAR members stretched beyond the specific agenda item.

A City staff member noted that the need for “alternate” members had come about because of the necessity in some large projects such as those of the College of Charleston for members to recuse themselves (presumably because of professional conflicts) This had created problems in assuring that a quorum of members was present. The creation of two “alternates” would remove this problem. A member knowing that he had to recuse himself could ask the “alternate” to sit for that particular item.

BAR and approval process needs to be reassessed
Council member Fishburne who represents the “below Broad” and Ansonborough areas, said that the nature and role of the BAR need to be reassessed, as does the process. Many of his constituents were very unhappy about the performance of the BAR in recent times, particularly in relation to the approval of Clemson’s proposed School of Architecture on George Street. Some prominent citizens had also expressed concern, he noted.

The Council member noted that often considerable time was spent by the BAR over small issues and little time spent on major issues. The process needs to become “more citizen friendly”. He noted the comment on the Clemson School by one BAR member -“only architects could judge projects like this”. And this from a member of a Board that was supposed to take into account public comments! The Council member even suggested that architects and lawyers should not serve on the BAR.

Mayor suggest discussion be deferred
Mayor Riley understandably took issue with the Council member and asked Council to approve the measure before it. He said, and we think correctly, the other issues raised about the BAR should be deferred. The preservation ordinances of the City were now being studied by an outside consultant and its report was due later this. Better to wait for this report before changes were discussed. However the Mayor also noted that the views of BAR members were subjective and some issues may well end up being controversial.

Council members Evans commented that she shared some of Council member Fishburne’s concerns. Councilmember Lewis also expressed some displeasure with the BAR’s performance, though we expect this relates to unrealistic standards of restoration of houses in the impoverished areas of the City.

We agree with Council member Fishburne
We too share Council member Fishburne’s concern, and endorse his views about architects serving on the Board. The Mayor defended their presence and said that they provide some guidance to other members. Possibly so, but considering that the majority of folk making presentations before the BAR are architects, it is likely there is often intimidation. The architects on the BAR are in many instance competitors or friends of those before the Board. Impartial decisions in such circumstances would be difficult.

We would also add that the choice of BAR members is made by the Mayor and approved by Council. Considering the Council has never questioned an appointment, we probably simply can say that the Mayor chooses the members. And if there is a real issue with the BAR, it is that members are not independent of the Mayor’s influence. All but one of the BAR members voted for the School of Architecture, a building that was highly criticized by the public and professionals but supported by the Mayor. Board member De Marco, who is an attorney, conspicuously voted against it while the remainder of the Board, including its two architects, voted for it. Like Council member Fishburne, we would like to see a more “citizens” on the Board and who vote on the basis of their own views only.

Council decides at last on Fort Pemberton rezoning
The Council has spent hours discussing the proposed rezoning on the 7.4 acre site surrounding Fort Pemberton on James Island and which overlooks the Stono River. The Post and Courier has a full article on the issue today and we will give a only a summary

Where to place the access road?
The issue was simple. The rezoning would lead to a subdivision. Where did you place the access road to the houses that would be built should the subdivision be approved? Did it go around the back of the old Fort and inconvenience some of the neighbors, or did it go in front of the Fort and thereby “impede the view from the River” but save the integrity of the Fort. The City and eventually Council sided with the owner. They said that it should go around the back of the Fort even though the road would be narrow. The view from the river of the Fort needed to be protected.

Council member Fishburne sort of wondered out loud what the fuss was about. He didn’t seem to think that the view for the river was such a big deal. The limited traffic over this road would hardly be impairment, and besides, we were not talking of massive vistas here. He noted that scenic corridor was only about “the size of the room”- about 40 feet we guess. He noted that other development around the Fort had already impaired the scenic view.

He could have added that the road that Council voted against was going to be used during construction and emergencies. The road Council approved was not large enough to accommodate two-way traffic or fire trucks.

Was a sub division of over 28 lots really possible?
We suspect that Council was moved by the fact that theoretically, the owner could subdivide into sufficient lots to give over 28 dwellings. Instead, he was subdividing to allow only 6 new dwelling supposedly to preserve the Fort and the view. Of course the owner would not have been allowed to subdivide anywhere near the 28 lots without an ingress and egress road that met City specifications ie, 50ft of right of way and a 24ft pavement width and a sidewalk on at least one side. One has to wonder if the majority of the Council even cared about preserving the actual Fort since the approved access is actually through a major feature of the structure.

The existing dwelling on the property is occupied by the owner, Peter Evans, and was atop the Fort. The property was bought by an LLC, presumably controlled by Mr. Evans, in November 2005 for $3.1 million according to County records. The father of the owner said that the property was being subdivided to ameliorate the high cost of the purchase.

Only Council members Fishburne and Shirley voted against the rezoning.

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