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County Council, March 27

Updating the County’s Comprehensive Plan under way
Urban Growth Boundary unlikely to be moved
Warwick Jones

The Comprehensive Plan is the official document that sets forth Charleston County’s goals, policies and guidelines intended to direct the present and future physical, social, and economic development within the unincorporated county.

There was little of interest in discussions at the Finance Committee meeting last Thursday. There were a number of appointments to boards and commissions, a quarterly report from the internal auditor and a policy determination to help fund beach renourishment in the County. In relation to the latter, a fund would be formed using the proceeds of the Accommodation Fee. Money from this fund would be provided to municipalities on a match basis, but the size of the match would be determined on a “case by case” basis. That was it!

First report by Consultants on Comprehensive Plan update
What was of interest was the report of the consultants charged with updating the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Council was treated to an approximate 15 minute presentation. But this was less than a thorough summary of the marathon session before the Planning Commission earlier that day. The Consultants were sharing their preliminary conclusions and attempting to define objectives. That meeting was scheduled to begin at 9 am and last ‘til 1 pm. It went on until 3 pm and even then, items were cut from the agenda as the room had to be vacated for the Finance Committee meeting. And despite the length of the meeting, we suspect the consultants were often more confused than enlightened by comments from some Commission members.

We confess we did not attend the early part of the Commission meeting but were told that it was without incident or great moment. However we were much heartened by the consultants’ conclusions drawn from citizen comments at public meetings. These were:

1. Stay the course.
• There was a consensus that the current Plan embodies the right values for preservation and growth
• There was little interest in changing the existing/ planned geographic pattern of land uses, and little interest in changing the basic densities in the Plan

2. Improve quality and character of the Plan
• More focus was needed on preserving and creating community character through improved design.
• Need to work within the existing/planned geographic pattern of land uses and densities. Preserve and protect, especially rural and natural character
• Develop a character area approach to land use, while maintaining critical land-use provisions

3. Simplify and make the Plan more user-friendly
• Current Plan is 450 pages long. While most people use only the land-use map and density chart
• The revised Plan will be less than a hundred pages.
• Simplify the hundreds of goals, objectives and policies.
• Respect community aspirations

4. Strengthen the urban growth boundary
• The current Plan never uses the terminology, yet the public perception is that there is an urban growth boundary in the plan.
• Current Plan has no provisions for inter governmental approach to considering modification.

No need to shift the Urban Growth Boundary
Overall, it seemed that the Commission supported the conclusions of the consultants and certainly affirmed their desire to leave the Urban Growth Boundary where it is. This conclusion was reinforced by another observation by the Consultants - that the population of the unincorporated section of the County was expected to grow from 75,000 to 100,000 by 2020. This increase would represent the need for about 12,000 new dwelling units. There is sufficient land in the unincorporated section of the County to accommodate such growth under current land development policies up to 2020 and beyond, the consultants said.

Hung up on "character" areas
The afternoon session of the presentation to the Planning Commission was a slow grind. It virtually amounted to a discussion of a Land Use Map approach. The consultant thought it would be a good idea to define “character” areas – “geographic areas that have characteristics within them that distinguish them from others”. We thought the idea had merit and so did some Commission members. But there was not universal approval.

The consultant said that that the “character” areas had not been fully thought out or defined. But from a conceptual view, he thought Rural would be one “character” area. Others might be Beach Community, Island Village. In regard to Rural, it would be split into sub categories and split again into smaller categories. How all of these categories would be defined and shown still had to be decided. He suggested the Comprehensive Plan should just show the "character" areas and not the subdivisions though it would be possible to show more detail if the Commission willed.

We are not sure we can describe the direction there after. One Commissioner said he did not want the “character” area map. He was used to the current land use map and so was every body else. he said. Nobody drew his attention to the complexity of this map and the request from the public to make the Comprehensive Plan more user friendly.

A special designation for Johns Island adjacent to Maybank Highway?
Commissioner Kip Bowman, the most critical of the “character” approach opined there should 3 sub areas on Johns Island, perhaps 4. The latter should be adjacent to the bulge where Maybank Highway protrudes into the unincorporated area. Everybody knows that Mayor Riley is going to annex this area some day so we should have a special designation, he said. Funny, we thought that Commissioner Bowman was a member of the Planning Commission and not the Anticipation Commission. The Planning Commission is supposed to guide growth. A special designation as he suggested would almost be an invitation to the Mayor to do what the County does not want him to do. Fortunately, the Commissioner found no support for his proposal.

Consultants struggle to determine what Commission wants
The consultants struggled to find a common ground with the Commission. Their difficulty was defining what the body actually sought, with Commissioners’ views ranging from support to opposition. In an effort to find commonality they offered to stay with the old style maps or they could attempt to meld the two. Some Commissioners seemed to think that the “character” approach was an indirect way to achieve re-zoning – which they opposed. The consultants denied this but described it as another tool. It could be of use in determining the merit of variances for example if present zoning did not conform to the “character” of the area, they said.

The next meeting of the Consultants and Planning Commission is on April 14. Another round of public workshops is proposed for May 19-20 and a review of the Draft Plan before the Planning Commission is scheduled for June 9.

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