The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council, August 17

Proposed new hotel restrictions too harsh
Planning Commission asked to look again at a lower majority vote
Marc Knapp

There were a number of issues before Council at its meeting last night. Despite the
lengthy deliberations – about 5 hours –not all issues were resolved.

Probably the most important was the amendment to the Accommodation Overlay which was designed restrict/ restrain/shape hotel development in the City. A decision was deferred to allow staff to further study the ordinance. The Mayor also noted that there would be a workshop on the issue before the next Council meeting in September. Presumably the workshop will have a bearing on the amended ordinance.

A number of Council members expressed concern over the proposal. Council member Gregorie stated that the proposed amendment still looked like a moratorium on hotel construction, and others agreed. Council member Seekings stated that the issue over hotels was not the destruction of retail, commercial or residential space but rather of transportation. The proposed amendment would limit hotel construction on the Peninsula but effectively shift construction to areas outside the Peninsula. He opined that patrons of the latter hotels would still drive into the Peninsula and contribute the already intense traffic congestion. The question posed was whether it was better to have hotels in the City and less intense traffic.

Council member Seekings also questioned the wisdom of the 50-room hotel limit on the lower Peninsula. He noted the scale of Charleston Place and the benefit of the large “public space” on the ground floor level. A similar development on Upper King would be very beneficial. He concluded that the some of the proposed amendments allowed no room for flexibility and some flexibility was needed, an opinion echoed by other Council members.

The Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) and the Preservation Society (PS) spoke in favor of the proposed amendments. Mayor Tecklenberg asked that Council approve the amendments and to consider changes at the 2nd and 3rd readings. Council did not share his views and voted unanimously to defer and allow more consideration.

Staff provide some statistics that were interesting, There are 4,930 hotel rooms, existing or under construction on the Peninsula. Another 1,031 rooms have been approved and likely to be constructed within the next 3 years.

The issue of overriding the decisions of the Planning Commission (PC) lingers. Presently, Council needs a 75% majority vote to override a negative decision by the PC. The PC was asked to approve a reduction to a 60% majority but chose to stick with the 75% level. And it was clear that Council would not get the 75% level of approval to overturn the PC decision.

Council members Moody and Waring have been outspoken against the 75% super majority vote. Last night Council member Moody suggested that the PC be asked to reconsider its vote. He noted that when the PC voted last on the issue, there were only 6 Commissioners attending. Since then, appointments have brought the complement of Commissioners back to the authorized level of 9. The original vote of the PC was close and he thought that the votes of the new Commissioners could change the outcome.

Council member Waring spoke at length on the need for a reduction in the majority vote. Most other counties and municipalities in the State have only simple majorities. Even the US Congress had a super majority lower than the City’s. He went further and said that the present super majority was discriminatory. Well-heeled corporations and folk could hire lawyers to argue their cause before Council and thereby have a chance in overturning a PC decision. To achieve a 75% majority required considerable effort and expense beyond the scope of ordinary folk.

Council was divided on the issue but in an 8 to 5 vote, decided to send the issue back to the PC for re consideration. Those opposed were Mayor Tecklenberg, and Council members Seekings, Shahid, Riegel and Williams.

Earlier in the meeting, Council voted on another PC decision which required a 75% majority vote to overturn. It related to the creation of commercial gateways, and appropriate for mixed use residential development. The PC voted the ordinance down.

The City Council vote was confusing, and not only to us. Council member Lewis made the motion that the PC decision be approved. We are not sure whether there were 6 or 7 votes. But it did not get approval. Looking at it inversely, the Council failed to get a supermajority to overturn the PC decision.

The HCF and the PS supported both the retention of the 75% super majority vote by the PC and the rejection of the Gateway amendments.

Other items;

  • The Dupont Wappoo Community Plan was approved. This follows approval by the County. A joint effort by the City and the County, the Plan attempts to bring some order and coordination to the area in West Ashley. There were lots of praise for the efforts of the City and County, but some residents had reservations about affordable and workforce housing. Council agreed that some tweaking was necessary but unanimously approved the Plan in anticipation of some minor changes before the 2nd and 3rd readings.

  • There was dissention on Council over the transfer of $350,000 budgeted for a City–wide traffic study to finance the West Ashley Master Plan. The item stated that further funds for the Master Plan would be budgeted in 2017. Council members asked why funds were being taken away from the important City wide traffic study. How can you develop a Master Plan for West Ashley without knowing what is happening to traffic City-wide? We thought that the opponents had a point but Mayor Tecklenberg seemed to think otherwise. He poured out soothing words and said the Master Plan went beyond traffic, and required the retention of a consultant. He mentioned that traffic congestion in West Ashley was bad. (I rose in Citizens Participation and asked if the congestion is so bad, why did Council approve the lane closure on the Legare Bridge? The action can only exacerbate congestion in West Ashley.)

  • Can Council members vote on issues over the phone? Council member Moody did not think they could and referred to past decisions by Council. He took issue with Council member Williams voting over the phone on matters before Council in July and August. Council member Moody also pointed out the close vote on the Legare Bridge lane closing and suggested that if phone voting were not allowed, then the decision should be void. There was a lot of discussion about the legalities with Major Tecklenberg claiming that all that done was within the law and Council regulations. He noted that over the last 12 months there had been many decisions made by Council over phone calls. (We’d note that most of these related to emergencies and it is probable the Mayor could have made unilateral decisions). Others such as Council member Waring were not in agreement with the Mayor and asked that Council move to clarify and better define voting regulations for Council members.

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