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City Council, September 24

City seeks review of Federal Flood Insurance program
Some major changes to Accommodation Overlay
Marc Knapp

There were a number on items of interest on last night’s agenda. But perhaps of most interest was one that was not. It came up at the end of the meeting and related to the massive increase in flood insurance premiums should the Federal Biggert–Waters Act of 2012 go into effect as planned at the beginning of next month.

Recognizing the very adverse impact on the Charleston community, Mayor Riley has written a letter to the Congressional Delegation seeking a review of the Act. He circulated a copy of his letter to Council members and asked if they wished to be co-signers. All Councilmembers raised their hands in support.

It is difficult if not impossible to determine on a large scale who will be affected by this Act but it is certain that in some cases properties will see flood insurance premiums climb from less than $1000 a year to potentially over $10,000 a year. If this act goes into effect as written, it is obvious at this time and under this schedule that an already barely recovering real estate market will take yet another step back for many property owners. Obviously coastal areas and historic structures will be hit hard but so will many others across the nation.

The letter goes on to note efforts made by some members of Congress to mitigate the impact of the Act. It also acknowledges that the National Flood Insurance Program may need to be changed. But more time, the letter states, is needed to allow FEMA to complete its affordability study and the Flood Insurance Rate maps to be completed.

We strongly believe that the grandfathering of compliant properties needs to remain in the program to prevent the program from being punitive and unpredictable in nature.

Oh well, not only do we need to worry about hurricanes, we need to worry about paying for protection. Of course, flood insurance does not cover the damage from hurricanes, only rising waters that may accompany the hurricane. But generally, home owners with mortgages have no choice but to pay up. Insurance, flood and other wise is obligatory and part of the lending terms.

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Council gave the second (and final reading) to amendments of zoning and the Accommodations Overlay. Speaking before discussion on the amendments, Mayor Riley noted the changes in the City with the strong growth of tourism and the large number of hotels built, or underway. Something needed to be done to maintain the right balance within the community and help preserve housing stock. The Mayor also noted the need for a full service hotel with conference and meeting facilities in the uptown area

The new ordinance makes major changes to the spread of the Accommodations overlay. They were;

  • The 50 room limit for new hotels will be extended to south of Calhoun Street. Previously it applied to only north of Calhoun Street.
  • The major part of the overlay extends along King and Meeting Streets. Many of the properties along the eastern side of Saint Philips Street and the eastern side of Meeting Street will be removed from the overlay.
  • Properties will be added to the overlay that are west of Ashley Street and along Spring Street, and along East Bay Street
  • The area between King and Meeting Street, and Line and Mary Streets, will not have the 50 room limit. The limitation will be removed if the planned hotel is full service that provides 20,000 or more square feet of meeting and conference space, and an onsite restaurant

Viewers should press Download file. to see the additions and subtractions to Accommodations Overlay. The areas where a full service hotel can be built is not shown.

Although we applaud the City’s attempt to maintain order and balance within the City and not allow the presence of hotels to be overwhelming, we wonder at the reaction of those property owners whose properties no longer fall in the Accommodations Overlay. With the seeming strong demand for hotel space, they probably consider the value of their properties has been reduced. Will they seek compensation?

Which brings us to another item discussed last night – how should the City go about a downzoning? The issue was discussed at previous meetings and Council member Alexander introduced an ordinance that attempted to put more clarity into the procedure and process, and to provide for compensation should there be a loss in value. He withdrew his support for the Ordinance, at least for the compensation bit, on the understanding that staff would attempt to define an Ordinance that would address the issues raised.

Staff did as it was instructed but did not go far enough in the opinion of Council members. The proposed Ordinance laid out the steps the City must take to notify property owners of the City’s plans. They, and owners of adjacent properties must be notified by mail and with a 5 day notice. The letter would describe the purpose and intent of the rezoning. Time limits for letters to property owners, and for public hearings on the issues were also proposed.

Council members supported the proposal but suggested that the letter to property owners be certified and property owners given more than 5 days notice so they could speak at public hearings - before Council or the Planning Commission. But Council member Alexander still had an issue. The property owner was still presented a situation that was “fait accompli”. There was no prior discussion or “collaboration” with property owners. This was not right he said. The views of property owners should be sought before a zoning change was made. Council members agreed with him and staff was asked to further study the issue and attempt to write an ordinance that incorporated the suggestions made last night by Council members.

Other items from last night’s agenda;

  • At the first Workshop for the 2104 Budget, the Mayor indicated that no tax increase was planned. He said that there were $4.6 million of “must fund” cost increases. These related to health care reflecting in part the implementation of "Obama care", the addition of more police officers and firefighters, and higher lease purchases. As well as the “must fund’ increases, there were priority spending of $1.9 million relating to a COLA, $0.6 million addition to Parks Contracting, and $0.2 million for a Fire Pay Plan adjustment.The Mayor acknowledged that the process had not advanced far enough for the City to know whether revenue growth in excess of $7.3 million, the total of the items above was likely.
  • Council unanimously approved the texting ban whilst driving. The Mayor noted that the new ordinance was almost identical to that recently implemented by the Town of Mount Pleasant. The proposed ban has been well covered in the local media and in a lengthy article in today’s Post and Courier. Some Council members spoke of preference for a full ban on communicating through hand held devices whilst driving. The ordinance does allow voice transmission. It also states that police must not stop a person unless they have an unobstructed view of an infringement. As Council member Lewis said, I support the ordinance but it will be another ordinance on the City’s books that won’t be enforced.
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