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City Residents not Keane about planning Power-Grab

Lee Walton

For those who closely follow City of Charleston governance, it should come as no great surprise that one of Mayor J. Pericles Riley’s most trusted and well placed lickspittles now proposes to de-fang Charleston’s Commercial Corridor Design Review Board “…to speed up the process for some developers…” and delegate this 12-year old board to the same toothless capacity as the City Board of Firemasters. Thanks to Robert Behre’s Sunday Palter and Chatter article, “City may change review process”, at least some folks now have a “heads-up” and will get a chance to voice their opposition during this Wednesday’s meeting of the City Planning Commission. Hopefully, at 5:00 PM on the 17th, this latest of Riley’s deal-estate development “quid pro quo” schemes will confront serious public scrutiny and be dealt a quick, fatal blow.

If the proposed ordinance passes, City Code Section 54-268, which sets forth the authority of the current Commercial Corridor Design Review Board, will be “gutted like a flounder” by placing primary review authority in the hands of the administrative officer, the Director of Charleston’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. The proposed revision will give the administrative officer authority to transfer a proposed project to the board for review only at the request of the applicant, a scenario not often likely to happen, or at the sole discretion of the administrative officer. The significant reduction of public oversight envisioned by this proposed ordinance revision will, for all intent and purpose, make the department director the “gate keeper” for all proposed commercial and residential projects previously required to appear before the board.

On the surface, after scanning Behre’s article, a casual reader may get the impression that the proposed reduction in the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board’s oversight authority is being proposed as a necessary time-saving expedient to eliminate needless board review of “meat and potatoes projects” which apparently now consumes “60 to 70 percent” of its effort. Nonetheless, if for no other justification than to maintain a more public review process, it’s that other more important 30 to 40 percent that needs the increased public awareness, transparency and guardianship currently provided by the board. The single-minded biases of the department’s director and Riley’s handpicked planning staff is reason enough to insist upon maintaining the current public oversight authority of the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board.

One need not look far into the past of another city department to reveal the results of “wink ‘n nod” staff level variances and tolerated code violations, which lowered the building code bar for commercial projects with tragic consequences. The last policy changes the Riley Administration should now pursue are code revisions that reduce transparency and citizen surveillance of city governance. Consolidating increased regulatory authority into the hands of idealistic, progressive bureaucrats hell-bent on changing Charleston with their latest neo-utopian land planning model is the last thing Charleston needs right now, given all that’s currently on Riley’s gilded plate.

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