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City Council, November 27

Long Savannah annexation approved with minimal discussion
City formulates policy on its Urban Growth Boundary
Marc Knapp

It was described as a big annexation, second only to that of Daniel Island. But it got less discussion on City Council last night than a zoning issue over a property worth some $2 million or so. Only 2 Council members made substantial comments over the City’s proposed annexation of the properties that comprise the Long Savannah development. These members, along with one other, were those opposed to the development. It will now go to the Planning Commission for approval and then back to Council.

The Long Savannah development has received plenty of press over the last year or so. Located in West Ashley, it is outside the County-defined Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). The original plan of the developer called for the construction of more than 3000 dwelling units at a density not allowed by County zoning ordinances that applied to the rural side of the UGB. It was also clear that some members of County Council were not happy about the development or moving the UGB to facilitate development. The County’s attitude was never formally tested as the developer withdrew its original development request before a formal vote at the first Planning Commission hearing. It also withdrew it second request earlier this year before the Planning Commission even met.

Council member Fishburne speaks against it
Council member Fishburne spoke firmly about the need to at least defer voting on the development. Such an important annexation should be carefully considered and not hurried through Council. There were a number of troubling issues. One was the relationship with the County. The developer had come to the City of Charleston because it feared that the County would not approve the movement of the UGB. The annexation was simply circumvention of the County. This hardly sits well with the County. He had spoken with two County Council members who were shocked at the City’s action, in particular the violation of the unwritten agreement that the City would not annex property on the rural side of the UGB. Council member Fishburne also spoke of the need to cooperate with the County and municipalities on planning. In his opinion, the annexation was not “smart growth”. He also spoke of the financial pressures on the City particularly relating to drainage and the fire department. It should not add to these pressures by such a large annexation.

Concern for African American representation on Council
Council member Lewis who also voted against the annexation was concerned about infrastructure problems too. He had commented earlier in the evening about the need to better define voting districts in the City to adjust for population increases. He went on to suggest that development on Daniel Island and now Long Savannah could reduce even further African American representation on Council.

Championed by the Mayor and the CCL
The Long Savannah development was not without champions. There were two last night – the Mayor and a representative from the Coastal Conservation League (CCL). The Mayor described the Long Savannah development as “brilliant growth” and opined how it could be shaped to help the West Ashley area. He spoke of the developer’s plan to contribute to both infrastructure and land for parks and green space. He made no mention of the broken agreement with the County or future cooperation. But he added that the developer needed to act quickly. It had an option with the seller of the land and time was running out. In his opinion, if the option were not exercised, the next potential buyer of the property could develop under County zoning and contribute to urban sprawl. The CCL representative spoke largely on the contribution to the County’s green space.

Opposed to full extension of Mark Clark expressway
Interestingly, the Mayor said that no certificate of occupancy would be grated to any dwelling until there was access to the development through the Mark Clark extension. There was no mention of this restriction in the development agreement. But the Mayor said he was opposed to extending the expressway beyond the PRC-owned James Island Park. . The Mark Clark is supposed to tie in at the James Island Connector. Why the Mayor is opposed to this segment is unclear.

Problems in funding infrastructure, the City’s credibility
In Citizens Participation, the only opponents to the development were associate, Warwick Jones and myself. I made the statement that the UGB was no no more than a line in the beach at low tide. While perusing the agreement with the developer, I noted the potentially large funding obligations of the City for infrastructure. This may be an intolerable burden. My associate made points similar to Council member Fishburne but noted how the development would exacerbate the already extreme traffic congestion in the area. He also questioned the sincerity in gauging citizens’ views of the development in proposed charettes. This was a multi-billion dollar development. The “gift” of parklands (selling to the City or County at lower than appraised values) was worth probably about $20 million and seemed the “tail wagging the dog”. As a potentially high source of tax revenues, was the City likely to listen to citizens’ requests for lower building densities on the development? He cited the City’s disregard of citizens’ views expressed at the charette on Ansonborough Field.

City introduces its Urban Growth Boundary Policy
It was probably more than a coincidence that second reading of proposed changes to the City Century V plan with the adoption of the “Urban Growth Boundary Policy” and the “Johns Island Community Plan”.

Some points from the new UGB policy
• Amend the City of Charleston Comprehensive Plan to adopt the rural/urban boundary as a specific demarcation between the suburban and rural land use designations
• Introduce criteria for consideration of zoning map changes
• Create a new category for a change to the UGB with clear and specific criteria for amendment.
o Change must be contiguous to existing urban development
o A study must be undertaken to show there is an inadequate supply of land in urban areas over next 15 years
o Change provide substantial benefit to the public
• Establish a formal ” transition area” that limits density (1 unit per acre) and public services.

The Johns Island Community Plan brought out strong support from the citizens who participated in its creation. Council member Bleeker who spearheaded the effort was particularly passionate in her support. The degree of her passion probably reflected some adverse comments by Tim Mallard, who won her Council seat in the recent Council election. Mr. Mallard said that the plan should be deferred as it needed to be tweaked or refined. He suggested that Council heed his wish as a courtesy to a new member of Council. Council member Bleeker reminded Council that she was the sitting Council Member (until the end of the year) and that the courtesy should be extended to her and she was “for” the passage of the Plan. She got her way and Council approved it unanimously. We should add that a real estate developer also sided with Mr. Mallard and noted the large amount of land in a development in which he was involved that had to be surrendered to buffers etc. He opined that such a large proportion was unjustified as well as affecting the viability of development projects.

Council upholds the appeal against the BZA decision
And finally, there was the appeal in relation to 152 Rutledge Avenue. It got heated and even nasty. And in a sense it was all for nothing. It was clear that Council had made up its mind well before the end of about 1.5 hours of discussion. It voted unanimously to overturn the BZA decision to allow a “use” variance. This now calls into question as to whether SunTrust will proceed with the lease it has with the owner. The property will now revert to "residential", as desired by the Radcliffeborough residents

The details of the issue are long. Council heard the appeal about 2 months ago and the parties were given time to reach and agreement. They didn’t, though it seems they tried. We thought the decision by Council was correct but that the property owner and the Bank deserve some sympathy. They had sought and obtained the Neighborhood Association’s approval for the bank occupancy. The BZA must have noted this in its hearing. The Association subsequently discovered that many of its members were unaware of what was planned and after hearing from them, the Association reversed its opinion. This is what spurred the appeal.

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