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City Council, November 10

Optimistic fiscal outlook for 2016
Moratorium on new projects in Gathering Places
Marc Knapp

Last night’s meeting began with a Budget Workshop and a presentation by the Mayor. In summary, the current year has shaped up well, the City’s finances are in excellent condition and 2016 should also be a good year. CFO Bedard said that 2015 would end up between “a good year and a very good year”. We noted in a previous comment the strong fiscal performance of the City. But at that time, the impact of the storms and flooding of early October had not been felt. Without the added costs of dealing with the emergency, we suspect 2015 would be a better year than “very good”. The Mayor told Council that revenues are “at or slightly above budget” and expenditures “tracking on budget”.

The Mayor gave no projections for 2016 but noted the draft budget would be available on November 17. He expected modest growth in most revenue areas. He specifically mentioned Parking Revenue which would be assisted by an increase for parking meters from $0.75 to $1.00 an hour, and the introduction of a two tier monthly parking rate for garages - $125 for 6am to 7 pm on weekdays and to noon on Saturdays, or a full monthly rate of $160. The charge for hotels would rise from $16 to $17 a night and the charge levied on the City for Council spaces, from $100 to $105 a month.

The Mayor also noted spending increases that were anticipated. They included a 2% pay increase for all personnel, an increase in the Fire Department personnel complement, and outlays to equip all patrol officers with body cameras. The City also plans to spend $350,000 on a “City Wide Transportation Plan”. Savings relative to this year’s budget were also expected on Consolidate Dispatch, Health Care and Workers Compensation. These savings aggregate nearly $2 million.

There was heated discussion toward the end of the Budget session relating to the proceeds of the Accommodation and Hospitality taxes. Council members Alexander and Waring felt that West Ashley was not getting a fair share of the proceeds and the Peninsula was receiving a disproportionate share. The heat continued despite the comments from CFO Bedard and the Mayor that the State law clearly defined where and how most of these funds were to be spent - on tourist related activities and in the area where the funds were derived. Mr. Bedard opined that the City could not spend beyond $1 million of these funds in West Ashley without infringing the law.

We think that CFO Bedard and the Mayor were correct in their stance. And it is not the first time that West Ashley folk have complained about the distribution of funds. In January, the City will have a new Mayor, and he will be from West Ashley. West Ashley Council members should have a more sympathetic Mayor but we doubt this will help their cause.

The proposed moratorium item on Gathering Places (GP) drew a large number of speakers in Citizens Participation. Most were in favor but representatives of two developers with projects in progress had some apprehension.

Council voted unanimously in favor of a moratorium on new projects. The moratorium would end on January 27 next year. In the meantime, staff would study the GP zoning. It would seek the views of interested parties - developers and citizens in shaping any changes. Council members noted the importance of speed and expressed reluctance to extend the moratorium beyond the expiration date.

Herewith an extract from the City ordinance on Gathering Places.

Sec. 54-274. - Purpose.
This district authorizes mixed-use town, village, and neighborhood centers around the city at major intersections or along traditional commercial streets around the city. Diverse housing, mixed-use, and pedestrian-oriented development are permitted in the district to allow for a variety of housing types to address housing needs, to create concentrations of housing and services at locations accessible by public transportation and to facilitate an environment conducive to walking.

Gathering Place District is for suburban locations where there is undeveloped acreage of at least eighty (80) acres, or for redevelopment sites of at least three (3) acres, as designated for Gathering Places in the City's Comprehensive Plan.

Council member Wilson, a strong supporter of a moratorium noted that it was not a “taking”. It was not a “no-build”. It was a “breather”. The plans of one of the two developers whose representatives spoke at last night’s meeting would not be affected by the moratorium, she said. (Staff was uncertain about the status of the other) Referring to the GP zoning on Maybank Highway, she stated that the scale of the development was the problem. She later stated that a traffic study was necessary. And this was clearly the view of most of the speakers in Citizens Participation who noted the traffic congestion and likely exacerbation by further development. They also noted the lack of public transportation.

Although the moratorium was approved unanimously, some Council members had reservations. Council members White and Alexander noted the growth of Charleston and the need for housing. Citizens may not like the denser development in the GP zoning. But taking a longer term view, if greater dwelling density is not allowed in the urban area, the Urban Growth Boundary inevitably will need to be moved. Council member Moody said that if there are changes in the GP zoning, they must apply to all GPs and not only to that on Maybank Highway. He also wondered whether the Zoning could be amended without resorting to a moratorium.

Council member Moody did not endear himself to bikers with his comments on the study relating to a Safety on a bike lane on the Connector. The Council member is the Chair of the Traffic and Transportation Committee. He noted that the study was on the City’s web site and one of its conclusions was that a bike lane was likely to be used by only 5% of the City’s bikers, and not the casual biker. The study suggested that to make biking safer, the speed limit for traffic be cut to 45 mph. Councilmember Moody wondered out loud as to whether the projected usage justified any spending on the lane. A public hearing will be held on the issue. is

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