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City Council, April 12

Citizens to Council – Do something about traffic congestion!
A touching recognition of Isabella Rybak
Marc Knapp

It started with a public hearing relating to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) on Johns Island. The developer wanted to add acreage and units to the original PUD. No, said some nearby residents, it is going to add to traffic congestion that is already overwhelming us. And it then grew to a chorus as other citizens and then Council members spoke with alarm of the traffic problems of the island and Charleston generally.

Very broadly, little was said that hasn’t already been said about the City’s traffic congestion problems. Some speakers acknowledged that the problem has existed for years but added that in the last few months, has become particularly acute. Those from Johns Island complained about the choke point on Maybank Highway when it turned into a single lane road. The backup from this choke point sometimes extended back to the City's public golf course in the evening peak hours. And coming into the City, the choke point at the Legare Bridge caused congestion way back along Route 17, and on Folly Road to Maybank Highway.

There were no kind words for the closure of a traffic lane on Legare Bridge to accommodate bikers and pedestrians, or for the comments in the local press about the absence of anticipated congestion. What were the observers looking at? I and others noted that the cost of the study had escalated from an original $1 million to $3 million. This was money that could have been spent on roads. Council member Moody opined that the city had fallen victim to a vocal and well organized minority in approving the lane closure.

The failure to complete I-526 was also lamented. Council member Moody called it I-263 (half of I-525). It was originally conceived as a ring road around Charleston but was in fact only half completed. It needed to be completed if the traffic woes of the City and Johns Island were to be properly dealt with. There was a lot of development on Johns Island and congestion would be exacerbated without road improvements. Council members noted the efforts of the County to complete I-526, but some wondered whether the County had done enough. Two of the County Council members (Condon and Qualey) who opposed the recent County resolution to seek funds beyond those promised by the State Infrastructure Bank were from the West Ashley area. This area is affected badly by the failure to complete the highway.

In Citizens Participation, I reminded Council members that Mayor Riley was a long time opponent of I- 526 and it was only in relatively recent years that he supported it.

Council member Wilson asked about traffic studies which precipitated some discussion about their efficacy and worth. Unsaid but inferred perhaps was that all the major development projects required traffic studies. And presumably these studies indicated insignificant impact on traffic flows. Yet here we were with major traffic problems in the City.

There was no issue on Council about the need to do something. But what? The County and the State had to show leadership, the State needed to raise the Gasoline Tax and increase road funding. There was the note that the County was considering another half-cent sales tax to fund road construction.

In the meantime, development continues apace in the City and County. A journey along some of the major highways, and beyond, shows the evidence. Undoubted, the development over the last 12 months or so was a major contributor to increased congestion. And with construction activity at record levels, congestion can only increase. And what are the consequences if a major hurricane hits the area and evacuation is necessary?

I don’t understand why Johns Islanders are not rioting over the absence of progress in developing the “pitchfork”. It was to be a temporary alternative to I-526 and approved by the County some years ago. Permitting is still underway and there has been no construction. How soon construction will begin, of the pitchfork, or the flyover at the junction of Route 17 and Main Road is conjectural. The Islanders will say it can’t happen soon enough. But things will surely get worse before they get better.

Incidentally, the amended PUD was approved. The developer planned to place about 150 dwelling units in the 147 acres to be added. The overall density in the PUD will be 2.3 units per acre compared to the 4.5 per acre allowed under the present zoning.

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It was a touching moment. Many of the presentations and recognitions at City meetings leave us cold. But not the one yesterday for Isabella Rybak. She got a standing ovation and there we many teary eyes I am sure. But the ovation was shared with Mike Ritland, the Warrior Dog Foundation which he founded, and a warrior dog.

Isabella read a book written by Mr. Ritland called Naval SEAL Dogs. Mr Ritland was a naval SEAL and served in Iraq and elsewhere. The Foundation that he created was to help Special Operations K9 Community. And amongst other things, it rehabilitates the dogs and finds homes for them.

Isabella was so moved by Mr. Ritland’s book that she went to social media and raised money for Special Operations. The member of SOP in Afghanistan was so touched by Isabella’s efforts and the results, he contacted the City. And hence the recognition.

Isabella is 13 years old.

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Mayor Tecklenberg told Council that the mediation talks with the Beach Company over the redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper site had been abandoned. His term was “hit an impasse”. We did not record the precise language but there was inference that one of the parties was obdurate. Was he referring to the Beach Company or one of the participating groups? The latter included neighborhood and preservation groups.

The matter will now return to the courts. The issue not only relates to the development of the Sergeant Jasper site but also the legitimacy of the Board of Architectural Review.

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Council passed the amendment to the ordinance governing the City’s tour guides. There was no discussion. Presently those wishing to obtain a license must pass both a written and oral test. The pass mark for the written test was 80% but is to be lowered to 70%. The oral test is to be eliminated. As before, licensed tour guides will be required to take continuing education programs though there are some differences is relation to frequency in the amendment.

The Post and Courier had a lengthy article on the issue today. As the author points out, the changes come a week before the City appears in court to defend licensing. Three guide aspirants failed the course test and are suing the City, claiming that licensing is an infringement of free speech. According to the P&C, 344 persons took the licensing test over the last 3 years and 164 failed. If the pass mark was 70%, another 71 would have passed.

The lower pass mark clearly makes it easier to become a licensed tour guide. But it does not settle the issue as to whether licensing infringes free speech. As the P&C article points out, court rulings in various states are not uniform.

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