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City Council, January 24

Short term rental ordinance passed with amendments
To be reviewed in 6 months
Marc Knapp

Council gave the final reading to the ordinance creating a Short- term Rental Overlay District in the City. The ordinance was passed unanimously – significant, as the Planning Commission rejected it in its original form. Because of this rejection, a 75% or more majority of Council members was needed to pass the ordinance.

The ordinance before the Planning Commission allowed short-term rentals in commercially zoned districts any where in the City. Council voted last night to limit the overlay to commercially zones areas only in Elliottborough and Cannonborough. Press Download file to see overlay. It also agreed that the ordinance be reviewed in 6 months time.

Details and discussion of the proposed ordinance have been noted in reports on recent Council meetings. Suffice to say that the City’s purpose in creating the ordinance was two fold – to assist the rehabilitation of large and neglected building s in Elliottborough and Cannonborough, and to provide low cost short-term rental opportunities to friends and relatives of students at the College of Charleston and of patients at the City’s hospitals. There were other restrictions beyond geographical. All rental units must have full kitchen and bathroom facilities, no more than 9 units were allowed on any site, and parking provided as per City code. We should note that short-term rentals – less than 30 days – are allowed in the City only in the Accommodation Overlay Zone, or at Bed and Breakfasts in the Historic District. The latter have to meet strict conditions in relation to parking, facilities and the number of units.

Council members White and Alexander have expressed concern about the new ordinance. It was not that they saw an adverse impact but whether such was possible. We suspect that the decision to review the ordinance 6 months after enactment was placating, at least to some extent.

There were a number of citizens that spoke for the new ordinance. Most were architects, developers, or residents of the two boroughs. All touted the benefits – the resuscitation of old buildings, the displacement of college students (with the implication that they made little contribution to the fabric of the community), and the likely reduction in on-street parking pressure. Only one citizen spoke against the ordinance stating that creating rental properties in a residential area was taking away from the community.

Mr. Keane, Director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability told Council that staff had spent considerable time shaping the ordinance. He said studies had been made of a number of cities in the US where short- term rentals had been permitted. It seemed that the policies had failed when the rentals had been massed, and in residential areas. What the City was proposing would avoid the mistakes made by others.

There may have been another purpose to Mr. Keane‘s comments beyond enlightening Council. He may have been directing remarks to the Post and Courier, which carried an editorial comment about the Ordinance in yesterday’s edition. He made no comment on the editorial but in our opinion, it was unfair and with errors.

The editorial suggested that Council “think long and hard” about the ordinance. Yikes, this ordinance has been perhaps more than a year in the making. It has been before the neighborhood associations, the Planning Commission, through a public hearing, and before Council at a number of meetings. This plan was not just dreamed up overnight. If the newspaper had reservations about the ordinance, why did it wait to the final reading to air its concern? If it assigned a reporter to regularly cover and attend Council meetings, maybe it would be better informed. It might also understand what the City is trying to achieve. It might also avoid factual mistakes.

Taking sides with the Preservation Society, the editorial states “ by squeezing too many people into buildings without parking and on site supervision could make a difficult position even more so”. Buildings without parking? The ordinance states that parking will be defined by Chapter 54, Part 4 of the City ordinance. This is a long chapter and it spells out requirements for different zonings. As Mr. Keane has said, the dwelling units created for short-term rental will be required to provide off- street parking. We asked him again about the issue before the meeting and he gave the example - If there are 4 dwelling units in a commercial property that are devoted to short term rental, 8 dedicated parking spaces will be needed. So where is the squeeze, we ask?

The P&C said the City should vote no to the ordinance and do more work. We suspect that most Council members saw the editorial and dismissed it.

Issue, sort of, over cell phones
There was nothing much else on the agenda we thought that should provoke controversy. We were wrong, though we suspect that most Council members still share our view.

The Mayor had introduced some amendments to the rules of order and procedure for Council meetings. We understand there was an amendment designed to ensure that cell phones were turned off during meetings so there were no interruptions – but it was in “legalese”.

Council member Seekings said that the language was unreasonable in the day of the Internet and I -pods etc. Council would be stripped of its ability to communicate or access the Internet during Council meetings. The issue then took on a life. We think the Mayor was struggling to know what to say about an issue that had become so overblown. What about in emergencies some Council member asked? What if, what if?? We can’t remember how or whether the issue was resolved but the discussion went on for a very long time. Some Council members just sat silently by probably like us, just wondering. What happened to common sense?

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