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City Council July 17, 2007

The Sofa Store site, Ansonborough Field and down-zoning on Johns Island
Too much for one evening!
Marc Knapp

Summer meetings are a test of endurance. Last night's was no exception. It lasted 5 hours. In summer, there's only one meeting per month instead of the normal two. Not surprisingly, the seats get uncomfortably hard and concentration impossible. It is not helped by some Council members raising trivial issues at the end of the meeting, seemingly designed to garner attention than to address real issues.

Some issues pushed to the background because of time
But there were a number of real issues before Council yesterday. There was the possible purchase of the Sofa Store site, the approval of the Ansonborough Field project, and the down-zoning of properties outside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) on Johns Island, where substantial development is planned. These issues dominated the meeting and pushed some other items, which normally we would expect to be more fully discussed, into the background - In particular, the 2008 CARTA budget, the purchase and lease back of a parking garage near the College of Charleston, drainage issues, and a management change at the St. Julian Devine Community Center.

Mayor authorized to begin discussion with Sofa Store site owner
Council authorized the Mayor to begin negotiating with the owners of the Sofa Store site for the possible purchase by the City. The Mayor noted that permission was sought only for negotiations and that should a purchase price be discussed, it would still be subject to Council approval. And indeed, the Mayor and some Council members noted there were some differences in the community as to what the site should be used for – a park, a fire station, or something else. This was yet to be determined and the public would have the final say.

In a very emotional speech, the Mayor spoke of the need in some way to preserve the site to ensure that no commercial construction was undertaken. He mentally revisited the scene of the fire and spoke of the tragedy. Many times his voice was halting and his face strained, trying to hold back tears. Not in these words, but in substance he said that to place a commercial structure back on the site would be sacrilege. Nobody disagreed and Council voted unanimously to allow negotiations to take place.

Ansonborough Field development gets final nod
One way or another, the development of Ansonborough Field has passed by Council a number of times. Last night, Council approved the deal with the East West Cumberland Park Associates LLC to develop the field and pay the City $16 million. The details of the development have already been announced and involve close to 200 condominiums and apartments, commercial and retail space, and two 50 room hotels. According to the Mayor, the cost of the development will be somewhere between $150 and $175 million. According to Councilmember Fishburne, the revenue derived by the City in property taxes could be of the order of $10-$20 million a year, significant for a City with a budget of approximately $120 million.

Discussion focused on “affordable” housing
Most of the discussion about the project related to “affordable housing”. The developer plans to build 60 affordable units - 16 units “for sale” and 44 units for “rental”. In total, these units represent about 30% of the planned total units. Those for sale will be offered to those earning between 80% and 150% of the region's median family income (MFI) as defined by HUD and the rental units, to those earning 50 to 60% of the MFI.

Council members Lewis and Gilliard dominated much of the discussion. Council member Lewis said that the units may be called “affordable”. But they were not and that they would be out of reach to most low income families. Councilmember Gilliard spoke similarly. He recognized that something had to be placed on the Field and that some development should go ahead. But he too was unhappy about the number of “affordable” units. He asked that decision be deferred so more consideration could be given to boosting the “affordable” housing contribution.

He didn’t get his way. Council voted to approve the development with only Council members Gilliard and Lewis against or abstaining.

“Understandable” but not “optimal” development
Fellow ‘watcher Warwick Jones commented that given the emotion surrounding the displacement of African-Americans from Ansonborough Field some 20 years or so ago, the desire for “affordable” housing on the Field was understandable. So what was proposed last night was understandable, but it was not optimal. The optimal plan was to sell all the housing units at market value. Ansonborough Field is a prime site and would attract high end buyers. He estimated that by selling or renting the units at “affordable” rates, the City was “subsidizing” the affordable housing to the tune of about $20 million – about $300,000 per unit. If all were sold at market rates, the City could take the estimated $20 million and finance more than 60 units in another part of the City. The funds would be available immediately if the developer were to include the amount as consideration to the City. The City, if it chose, could make the funds available for very low income families. This would satisfy the concerns of both Council member Gilliard and Lewis.

Mr. Jones’s comment followed that by Arthur Lawrence, President of the Westside Neighborhood Association who spoke of the dilapidated houses in some parts of the City and the need to help the poor who live in them.

Down-zoning on Johns Island approved – litigation likely
The down-zoning of property on Johns Island came before Council nearly 12 months ago. We don't understand why it took so long for the matter to go before the Planning Commission and back to Council. When the issue first surfaced, we predicted that the down-zoning would precipitate legal action. It seems that we are right. The owners of the properties are looking for $20 million as compensation.

To recapitulate, approximately 887 acres owned by the Rawle and Simmons families on Johns Island were annexed into the City in 1990, and at the request of the City. At that time, the County zoning which applied to the properties allowed 4 dwelling units per acre. After the annexing, City zoning confined development to 3.9 units per acre. In 1999, the County established its UGB, and for some reason, the properties were placed on the rural side of the boundary. In 2000, the City adopted its Century 5 plan, which amongst other things endorsed the UGB.

Last year, the property owners planned a subdivision which would entail the construction of some 1000 or so houses. Citing the results of its Johns Island Preservation Committee and the existence of the UGB, the City attempted to downsize the properties to Conservation zoning. This would mean a maximum density of 1.5 dwelling units per acre. The owners understandably oppose this, claiming that the value of the property would be substantially reduced.

Hard to reconcile some statements
There were a lot of things said last night, and it was often hard to reconcile the facts as presented by the City and the owners. Judge Rawle representing the owners said the City made no attempt to contact them and discuss some compromise. The City disagreed and claimed that attempts had been made. The owners said a down-zoning at this stage would represent a considerable loss of value. The City said that it had the right to downzone and gave many examples of where it had been done. The owners that in their view, the City had two options, to let the development take place at the zoning densities that previously existed, or to acquire the property at fair value, which they estimated at $20 million.

Many spoke in favor of down-zoning
A large number of residents of Johns Island supported the City's plan. An argument we found interesting and hadn’t heard before, related to the proximity of the development to the John Island airport. One speaker who seemed to be particularly knowledgeable stated that the City was inviting legal action. If you build it up to the boundaries of the airport and in the flight path, you are inviting legal action. he said. Successful litigation had been initiated by citizens in other cities where such building had occurred, for damage caused by aircraft and associated noise. Some members of the public, and Council pointed to the lack of infrastructure in the area, and the narrow roads which service the area. One speaker noted that developments already approved would add approximately 4000 vehicle trips on River Road a day. The approval of this subdivision would add another 2200 vehicle trips a day. This was more than the capacity of the road. Other speakers noted the impact on the environment and the destruction of the rural ambience of the area.

“Josh” Martin, Director of Planning and Preservation for the City also spoke. It was clear that he was not happy with the suburban style subdivision that was planned for the properties. He previously has spoken at meetings on Johns Island and elsewhere about the need for the development of town centers and the gathering place concept. He essentially embraces the new urbanism which eschews suburban subdivisions, common over the last 50 years or so.

But owners have a right in our opinion
All those in favor of the down-zoning had a point. But then again so did the owners. Although we too would like to see the rural ambience of Johns Island preserved, we feel the rights of the owners need to be respected. We spoke during Citizens Participation and castigated the City for its tardiness in dealing with the issue. Judge Rawle and the other owners have abided by the laws and regulations, and thought nothing was remiss up until they attempted to develop the property. Only at that time did the City move to downzone. It had 17 year to act, but had done or said nothing.

There will be a loss in value
Some members of the public thought that there'd be no loss in value because of the down-zoning. We clearly disagree and in that regard, we side with Judge Rawle. We think it's only fair that if the City persists in down-zoning, it should pay the owners fair compensation. We don't know whether this is more or less than $20 million but compensation is only fair. It is particularly irritating to me that we as citizens of Charleston should have to bear the cost of the City's tardiness.

Your Comments:

I applaud the city's action. I'm sorry, but how much of a profit do you figure Judge Rawls will make relative to the price he paid for it so long ago, even after the down-zoning? We shouldn't have to accept another bad development just so someone can turn a $20M profit instead of $10M.

Posted by: Native_Ink at July 22, 2007 04:57 PM

You wouldn't be saying that if it was your property. There needs to be a balance. John's Island should be preserved, but the property owners and the City need to mitigate.

Posted by: Rodger Little at July 29, 2007 04:04 PM

If it were my property and my retirement I was seeking to fund, I'd be quite happy with selling the property at its down-zoned price. But of course, a few million dollars would be quite enough for me to enjoy my retirement. I wouldn't necessarily need to sell out John's Island for a few dollars more...

Posted by: Native_Ink at August 3, 2007 10:01 PM

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