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City Council, September 10

Compromise on proposed downzoning ordinance
An overlay to replace proposed new Neighborhood Business zoning
Marc Knapp

We expected quite a battle over the proposed ordinance to award compensation to those whose properties lose value because of a downzoning. The opposing sides shot off their salvos during last night’s long session. But at the end, compromises were reached.

The City confessed that perhaps it could have done a better job consulting property owners affected by its attempt to stop the spread of bars into the residential areas of Elliottborough and Cannonborough. So it suggested, let’s scrap the new Neighborhood Business (NB) zoning district and work on an overlay which would impose similar restrictions as NB but without the concomitant “downzoning”. Council member Alexander, who was largely responsible for the proposed ordinance relating to compensation, was not entirely happy. He said issues remained relating to the process. He was prepared to omit reference to compensation but something needed to be done about “process” as he referenced the unsatisfactory consultation with business owners in the two boroughs.

The outcome? The City will prepare by the next Council meeting a proposal for the creation of an overlay zone that can be applied to limit bar and restaurant hours of operation, and also an ordinance to better define the process in downzoning.

There were a lot of citizens who spoke to the issues at last night’s meeting. Probably most speakers first learned of the proposed compromise of an overlay district at the meeting. Many saw the issue only in the context of its impact on the two boroughs. And it seemed that most of the residents who spoke didn’t care whether it was through a new zoning district or an overlay zone - just do something quickly because the residential areas were being destroyed. Their stories were not pleasant – drunkenness and rowdiness all hours of night, vandalism, and trash. Sleep was sometimes impossible. Some residents said that they would have to sell up and move.

The revitalization of Upper King Street has been a great success but there have been unintended consequences. The City clearly did not expect such proliferation of bars and restaurants or the subsequent crowds of patrons. With the wisdom of retrospect, it acted too slowly to what was happening and probably in its effort to make haste and rectification, made mistakes. But how much can be rectified?

The Mayor is clearly concerned and reminded residents that there was a 12 month moratorium on the creation of new bars in the two boroughs and other affected areas. So although the process has taken longer than expected, nothing has been lost. The moratorium would continue for some months and in time for the City to implement the overlay district. However there seemed little likelihood that existing bars would be affected by any overlay or change in zoning. Their operations would be “grandfathered” and would continue as an “non conforming use”. They would continue to serve the late night crowds, some of which are composed of the students of the nearby College of Charleston.

The proposed overlay zone however was not a compromise over the bigger issue posed by Council member Audrey’s proposed ordinance. The Mayor wanted none of it, at least that relating to compensation. He had a lot of support - from the editorial pages of the Post and Courier to the Historic Charleston Foundation, Preservation Society, the Coastal Conservation League, and some citizens. It was very telling how opposed the philanthropic organization were to private property rights. After listening to their comments, they seemed to have an utter lack of knowledge of what property rights are and what they mean to this country. The speakers echoed the Mayor stating that as a City grows, so do the needs of the community and citizens. The City needs the latitude to make zoning changes. To impose the necessity of making financial compensation would impede the City in its task.

Only the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors and I spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance. The government should not have the right to take something from citizens without compensation, we argued. Citizens’ property rights are core to our republic. I saw the ordinance as a means of assisting small property owners obtain appropriate compensation.

Compensation seems a gray area. The Mayor and others spoke of the present ability of municipalities to act freely to downzone when in the public interest. But can they act freely? A large or affluent property owner can afford to dispute unilateral action by the City, a small property owner most likely will balk at initiating a suit because of the cost. We recall the downzoning a few years ago of properties on Johns Island owned by the family of Mr. Victor Rawl. The family initiated court action and from press reports, the parties were instructed to come to a compromise. What happened if they didn’t compromise we can only speculate? But clearly the Court did not think the City had “carte blanche” in this issue. We don’t think the City has “carte blanche” in any downzoning issue without consideration of compensation.

Other items discussed last night included

  • CARTA budget for FY2014. No change in service or fares were anticipated in Fiscal 2014 (ending September). Revenue was anticipated to increase by $2.77 million over that expected for FY2013, an increase of 16% to $20.53 million. The lift largely reflected a $1.2 million increase in federal grants and $0.6 million increase in half-cent sales tax proceeds. Total expenses rose by a similar magnitude but were across the board. Salaries and benefits had a strong rise of $217,000 or 36% to $920,000. Viewers can see the budget summary by pressing Download file for revenues and Download file for expenses.

  • 2014 City Healthcare budget. Chair of the Committee of Human Resources, Councikl member White reported that conforming to the Affordable Healthcare Act would add about $600,000 to the City costs in 2014.

  • Seawall Repair. Contracts totaling about $2.92 million were approved relating to engineering, administration and construction of the Sea Wall at the “turn” of the High Battery. This is the first project relating to the general repair or replacement of the battery on the Peninsula. Others will follow but the timing is indefinite.

  • The 2012 Audit. The external auditors gave an unqualified report on their 2012 audit. However, they did note that the Government accounting body had recommended that municipalities make some provision for underfunded liabilities. The auditor could not be drawn into making an estimate as to what this figure might be for the City. However, it seems that whatever the amount, there will be no likely impact on the City. The City’s pension funds, as are all those of other State municipalities, are managed by the State. Overall the State funds are deficient. This deficiency has been recognized and the State has been working on bringing the funds back to balance with increased contributions by the State and employees, and reducing its liabilities. Ultimately, the State should succeed in its purpose though it may take more years. But as noted by CFO Bedard, the City of Charleston is in good shape in both relative and absolute terms. Some of the smaller municipalities in the State could not handle a hit to their budgets for higher pension funding. The consequences could be dire, in fact so dire, that the State is unlikely to lean on municipalities for more funding.

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