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City Council, August 19

Council divided on discussing moratorium on new bars and restaurants
Discussion will follow decision by Planning Commission
Marc Knapp

It had not been a long meeting, but it was long enough. The seats were hard in the Gibbes Museum where last night’s meeting was held and most of us thought it was time to finish up. But then Council Member Waring rose with a complaint and a motion. Council had never discussed the issue of a moratorium over opening new bars and restaurants in the entertainment areas. Yet the issue was going to the Planning Commission tomorrow. This was wrong. Let’s have the discussion now, he suggested.

The issue of the moratorium was not on last night’s Council agenda. It could be put there if Council agreed but only with a two thirds majority. Many Council members spoke to the issue of placing the item on the agenda, though not on the moratorium itself. The Mayor was clearly against the discussion of a moratorium and noted that citizens had not been informed of the discussions and should be. He also noted that no decision by the Planning Commission (PC) could be implemented without Council approval. He didn’t say but the implication was what is the point of a discussion now?

Council was equally split (6/6) on placing the item on the agenda and lacking the two thirds majority, the issue failed. But the question of a moratorium or not, will be back to Council at a future meeting.

We think that Council member Waring was right in principle. Significant matters going before the Planning Commission should have a preliminary airing before going on to the PC. But the Mayor was right too. The public could weigh in at the PC meeting and Council was not going to lose control of the issue. Nobody said it, but we will – if the moratorium were allowed to be discussed at last night, the meeting could have been extended for hours. And no decision could be made with the item before the PC the next day.

There was nothing of great import on last night’s agenda though three items of interest, two concerning the issue of borrowings:

  • The SC Aquarium is raising $2.7 million to install/upgrade energy systems. The money will be raised by a bond issue by the SC Jobs –Economic Development Authority. We understand that the bonds will be privately placed.

  • The Gibbes Museum is moving to raise funds by way of a mortgage. The mortgage will be over the museum building which is jointly owned by the City and the Carolina Art Association of Charleston. As an owner, the City’s permission was sought to procure the mortgage, and as stated last night, the City has no obligation under the mortgage (though we presume if there is a default, the City stands to lose equity in the building). The Gibbes has already indicated that it plans major renovations at the Meeting Street site and at a cost of about $10 million. Most of the funds for the project have been raised or pledged, and the funds derived from the mortgage are to be used to plug the small deficit, and to finance construction as donors make good their pledges. The latter may explain why no dollar figure was given on the mortgage amount – pledges may extend over a period of years, and although a donor may have sincere intent in pledging, it is not a binding commitment.

  • Before Council was a request to extend the School Overlay District to cover the school at the First Baptist Church site on Church Street. The school has existed for decades. It was never incorporated into the School Overlay because it never needed to be - its operations were grandfathered. However, if the school ever contemplated major changes or construction, it needed to be in the overlay. As the school is planning major changes, it was taking steps to be so. We thought the issue would be straight forward with a “rubber stamp” approval to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals.

    But not so. The Charlestowne Neighborhood Association had issues – particularly in relation to parking at the times of drop off and pick up children. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was being negotiated between the Church and the Association. It had not been signed though the parties were in agreement it seems for last night’s comments. But the Association felt that the agreement needed to be signed before the Council signed off on the overlay. The implication was that the Church might walk away from the MOU if it got what it sought from Council.

    Council Member Seekings made an attempt to placate the Neighborhood Association. But it went nowhere. The request by the Association was a precedent. Do all schools need to get the approval of the Neighborhood Associations before modifications or construction, members asked? Just about every neighborhood has the same problems of traffic congestion around schools as that suffered by the Charlestowne neighborhood, some Council members noted. Council voted unanimously for the extension of the overlay!

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