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City Council, January 9

Planning Commission Chairman speaks against short-term rental ordinance
Council moves to make it area specific

Marc Knapp

Yesterday’s meeting was the first of the New Year and the first for new Council members Moody, Waring and Wagner. The agenda was long though contained little of issue. Indeed, the only issue was the ordinance that would allow short-term rentals in commercially zoned areas.

At its last meeting, all Council members voted in favor of the ordinance with the exception of Council member White, who abstained. He declared that he was favorably inclined to the ordinance but wanted to obtain the views of some of his constituents, particularly in Ansonborough. As we mentioned in our report on the last meeting, some Council members were concerned that there could bean unintended consequence arising from the new ordinance. Nobody could point to what it might be but the Mayor said he was amenable to making the ordinance “area specific” if necessary. And at last night’s meeting, that effectively is what Council decided to do.

The catalyst to the change was probably the speech by the Chairman of the Planning Commission (PC), Mr. Frank McCann. The PC had voted down the original ordinance and clearly he was not happy that Council had voted to proceed regardless. (Council needed a ¾ majority vote to override the PC and it achieved this at its last meeting)

Mr. McCann spoke against the ordinance last night in Citizens Participation. He said the ordinance “goes against the philosophy of the City – which is a place to live rather than a place to visit”. He described the proposed ordinance as “corrosive”. He warned of garage apartments and the creation of party places. Council member Waring, who was a member of the PC before his recent election to Council, spoke similarly. He thought the ordinance could destroy the fabric of the City.

We doubt that any member of Council changed his mind about the likely threat of destruction or corrosion of the City’s fabric. But the view of the PC chair was something that should not be dismissed. And to mitigate his and Council member Waring’s fears, why not make the ordinance area specific? After all, the target was the Elliottborough/ Cannonborough area – with many houses in need of renovation, and close to the hospitals and the College of Charleston. It was the friends and relatives of students and patients that need access to nearby short-term rentals.

Mr. Tim Keane, Director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability was asked to revisit the ordinance and consider the creation of an overlay zone or making the ordinance specific in the Old City District area. This may not be sufficient to fully placate the critics, but it should go most of the way.

Our view is that the original ordinance would have had little, if any ill effect on the City. “Hotels on every corner” was a far-fetched and inflammatory cry. All units created for short-term rentals must have full facilities –kitchen, bathroom etc as well as parking access. There is also a limitation to no more than 10 units on any site. We doubt there are many sites in the commercially zoned areas in the historic districts that would lend themselves to such a development and indeed, if there were, how economically viable would their redevelopment be? We also note that nobody spoke against the ordinance either at the public hearing or, except the Chair of the PC, in Citizens Participation last night. But a number of citizens supported the ordinance.

We also sympathize with those residents that have large buildings in areas that we might call “distressed”. As for all of us, property taxes are an annual burden, and particularly heavy in these hard economic times. The ability to rent apartments short-term may not only be the catalyst to investment and rehabilitation of these properties, but an economic savior as well.

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