The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council, November 22

More clarity but not resolution of Angel Oak issues
Gun range amendment back to Planning Commission for re consideration

Marc Knapp

We’re not sure that Council member Wilson was satisfied by the response. And certainly some supporters of the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) were not. But at least there is more clarity surrounding the issues relating to the Angel Oak development.

Council member Wilson requested that discussion of the Angel Oak Planned Unit Development (PUD) be put on the agenda for last night’s meeting. In her opening remarks, she reminded members she was the sole Council member to oppose the original project in 2008 – it was too large, dense and inappropriate. Opposition to the development continued, she noted. She had conducted her own investigations and last night commented on the changing configurations and locations of buildings proposed within the PUD. She referenced three diagrams with different building locations than shown with the original PUD document. The number of exit points had changed, wetland designations had changed which sparked litigation, and there were issues relating to storm water disposal. She also noted that because of liens, funds approved by the County had not been released to purchase the 6.5-acre “greenbelt” around the tree. She suggested strongly that in combination, all these things should have brought the PUD back to Council for consideration and review.

We confess that we thought she had a point.

But as is so often the case, there is another side to the issue. And this was explained by Tim Keane, Director of Planning, Development and Sustainability, and the Mayor. Mr. Keane, probably a little exasperated in having to explain the workings of a PUD to a Council member, told Council that the developer had done nothing that contravened the terms of the PUD. And if indeed the developer had sought to move outside the agreement, the issue would have been brought back to Council. He did not dispute the changing configurations and location of buildings in the diagrams obtained by the Council member but noted that the PUD did not define where these buildings would go. Indeed, this was the nature of a PUD, to allow the developer latitude in his planning. As Council member White noted, the PUD was a written document not a site plan.

The Mayor closed the discussion with a reminder about state law and the vested rights of a developer. City Council had approved the PUD some years ago and had the support of CCL. For the City to now move and change the terms and nature of the PUD would invite legal action, and by implication the City would be prevented from making changes.

Council member Wilson was not satisfied with the responses and still had concerns particularly relating to access points, storm water discharge, and the wetland designations. According to the Post and Courier, she did not make a motion to bring the issue back before Council because she doubted she had sufficient support. We think she was right but it all may be moot. Again according to the P&C, the developer is running out of money. The cost of litigation brought against it by CCL in relation to wetlands has caused delays. In consequence, it may go bust.

CCL and probably many others may feel that driving the developer into insolvency is a price worth paying to “save” Angel Oak. As to whether the venerable and aged oak is really threatened is not an issue we care to address. But we do say there is something wrong when a developer abides by the law and meets all conditions of a PUD, it can be thwarted by legal action, and in this case, as it seems, driven to insolvency. CCL may argue that what choice did it have but to take legal action over the wetland issue if it thought there was a likelihood of environmental damage. We don’t have an answer. But the Angel Oak issue is a lead-on to the other major issue before Council last night where the City took on a role that philosophically looked different from that relating to Angel Oak.

Citizens strongly oppose gun range on Huger Street
Before Council was an ordinance to amend City code relating to land use regulations, specifically to shooting ranges. This issue was complicated and the Planning Commission (PC) had previously voted against the amendment. In consequence, a ¾ vote of City Council was needed to approve the amendment. Eventually, Council voted unanimously to send the issue back to the PC for reconsideration because it was probable that Commission members were unaware of some facts.

The issue had its beginnings with the plan of Mr. Ben Chase to convert a warehouse he owns on Huger Street into a shooting range (or was it gallery?) Mr. Chase, when he spoke before Council, said that his plan was in accordance to the law. It allowed, in his view, a range/gallery on Light Industrial zoned property. This indeed was the zoning of the property.

Mr. Chase’s plan was not before Council last night. But the proposed amendment was prompted by it. Legal staff claimed that the existing regulations precluded City approving Mr. Chase’s plan. What he sought to establish was a shooting “range” which is not allowed. A “gallery” is allowed but in the opinion of staff, his proposal was not a gallery. The proposed amendment was also designed to tighten and clarify regulations relating ranges. None were to be allowed within 1000 feet of a church, school or residential use.

There probably would have been no issues with Mr. Chase’s plans if the shooting range/gallery were located in Light Industrial zoned land elsewhere and not close to housing developments, churches and schools. A lot of citizens turned up last night including the Chairman and a member of County Council to speak strongly against the Mr. Chase’s proposal. Mr. Don Cameron head of the Charleston Housing Authority noted his agency was the major landowner in the area and he was strongly against the proposed range. What residential community would welcome a gun range in its midst, asked most speakers? Others spoke of the efforts to remove guns from the community, arguing that a gun range may reverse their success.

Mr. Chase took issue with these arguments. He did not see how crime would increase. Indeed familiarity with firearms would increase and perhaps reduce crime. He also wondered about the difference between a “range” and “gallery”. He referred to the Second Amendment and hinted at possible legal action.

The Mayor, winding up the discussion suggested that converting the building to a gun range may be technically correct but was it right? The range belonged in a real industrial area.

I rose to also speak of the issue and question the City’s zoning and planning. Why was Light Industrial and Residential zoning so closely mixed in this part of the City? Why weren’t there transition zones? The close proximity of the two very different zonings was bound to create issues like the one before us today. Didn't the City undertake a study of zoning in the Neck area in consequence of the new Ravenel Bridge? Changes should have been made at that time.

Draft 2012 draft budget unchanged
A draft of the 2012 budget was presented to Council last night and it can be viewed on the City’s web site. In broad terms, there is no change to the outline presented to Council four weeks ago.

In summary, revenues are expected to grow modestly and no tax increases are proposed. The hiring freeze (slowdown) will continue and coupled with retirement incentives should lead to $4.25 million in savings. Spending on fuel, health care and workers compensation is projected to rise $2.154 million and a 3% COLA will take an estimated $2.3 million. The Mayor also told Council that special bonuses would be paid at the end of this year amounting to $250 for a fulltime employee and $150 for a part time employee. The total cost of the bonuses will be $400,000.

As I noted a month ago, the economy is still fragile and could weaken next year. This is not the time to be giving raises and bonuses even though employees may deserve them. The City's Fund balances are healthy but they should be built up to better withstand a possible recession.

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