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City Council, September 22

City to acquire park at Longborough
Major new zoning district established
Marc Knapp

Real estate and zoning issues took up most of last night’s Council meeting. And the first to be discussed was the plan to acquire a park at Longborough. The ownership of the park has been disputed in recent years but the court decided the rightful owner was the Longborough Owners Association. Despite the fact that the public had access to the park, the Mayor claimed that the City should own the property to ensure future public access. Last night, Council agreed with him.

The Real Estate Committee first considered the issue at its meeting yesterday and approved the condemnation with only one member against (Alexander) and one abstaining (White). The property valuation before the Committee was over a year old and the Committee requested an update. It also required an assessment from another appraiser.

Council voted to accept the Committee recommendations though there was some confusion as to whether the condemnation applied regardless of the valuation. We think Council agreed to the condemnation only after consideration of its financial obligation. And we can only guess what that might be. An appraisal 10 years ago valued the block at over a million dollars but an appraisal a year ago was much less. The Owners Association has applied for a dock permit and success in its application could lift the property value.

Citizens Participation brought out a few speakers in support of keeping the park as it was, and opposed to the acquisition by the City. One speaker suggested that if the City was going to outlay funds for a park, they be directed to the Elliottborough/Cannonborough area where there were few parks.

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The agenda had 11 items relating to zonings, and all requiring public hearings. A casual observer of the City’s landscape today could hardly miss noticing the high level of development activity. The public hearings and proposed rezonings suggest no letup in this activity.

Probably the most important of those considered last night was the creation of a new Zoning District called Upper Peninsula (UP). The area will encompass much of Morrison Drive, and King and Meeting Streets from Mount Pleasant Street to North Charleston. The Zoning is complex and relies on a number of incentives or factors in determining the ultimate size, shape and height of a structure. Theoretically at least, it will be possible to construct a 12 story building if certain conditions are met.\

The City defines the purpose “to preserve the character and quality of the existing residential neighborhoods and to accommodate responsible growth and re development through the use of incentives designed to promote and protect the built and natural environments”. More simply expressed, the ordinance opens up a large swath of land that can be developed outside the restrictions imposed on much of the City that attempt to preserve its historic character.

The City sees this rezoning as a major impetus to growth and development. Councilmember Alexander stated that it brought Charleston into the Twenty First Century. Council member Waring waxed about the opportunities for more affordable housing and suggested that redevelopment of existing public housing with higher buildings beyond the new zoning district may also be a good thing.

Council was unanimous in its approval, but was much divided on the creation of a Planned Unit Development (PUD) on Johns Island.

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The PUD on Johns Island would cover 353 acres and would entail the construction of over 1000 dwellings on properties on Cane Slash Road and Maybank Highway. How was this development going to affect traffic flows on and off Johns Island, particularly as the development was not very far from the critical choke point on Maybank Highway where the “pitchfork” road design was supposed to be implemented?

The item precipitated discussion as to the adequacy of infrastructure not only on Johns Island but in West
Ashley and James Island. Should Council approve such developments before it with infrastructure lagging? The County and the State were the parties at fault, not the City, Council members suggested. Council member Riegel reminded Council that it approved the Long Savannah project despite his protests. That project would add over 4000 dwellings in an area where infrastructure was very much needed.

Council approved the PUD but with by a slim majority. The developer indicated that the build-out of the property was probably 10 years. Well within that time, the “pitchfork” plan designed to alleviate traffic flows between Johns and James Islands would be built.

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There were two proposals for rezonings on the East side. The PUD on Hanover Street, encompassing 0.915 acres was approved and acclaimed. Some 14 new dwellings were to be constructed though existing buildings would also be part of the PUD. The neighborhood association was concerned about the pressure on street parking but the developer assured Council that there would be adequate parking.

The other rezoning did not fare so well. It was deferred. The site once hosted a church. But a grave yard may still exist. The site is being investigated and if there are human remains, development may be complex.

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The proposed African American Museum moved closer to construction with the approval of a “Schematic design through Construction Administration” contract with Moody Nolan Inc. The contract was for $10.2 million. The item prompted Council member White to ask for an update on financing of the museum. The Mayor noted that the projected cost of the museum was $75 million, a figure that encompassed all costs, including exhibits. He noted that the City and County had committed to find $25 million of the total and the State, also $25 million. The balance was to come from private donors and although some commitments have been made, more are needed. However, the Mayor was confident that the money would be raised, either during or after his tenure as Mayor.

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One of the speakers rising in Citizens Participation was a tour guide who was also a carriage driver for Carolina Polo and Carriage Company. He claimed that in the 3 years that he worked for the company, it never complied with the City ordinance to pasture horses for 2 weeks every 4 months. He also raised a question about the deaths of a number of horses.

It had been a long meeting and by the time Citizens Participation came around, we suspect that most Council members were weary and inattentive (and some attendees were certainly so). The speaker was also unable to complete his presentation because of a speaking time limit but his hand-out spelt out his concern. The hand out also contained copies of letters that had sought, unsuccessfully, information from the City.

We think the allegationS are serious and hope the City attempts to establish as to whether there is substance to them.

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