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City Council, February 13

West Ashley unfairly treated say two Council members
Plan West Ashley gets nod, but unlikely for Johns Island moratorium
Marc Knapp

Two items on yesterday’s agenda dominated last night’s meeting – the Plan West Ashley plan and the proposed 6-month moratorium on the issuance of development permits on Johns Island. As expected, the Plan West Ashley was approved. Less expected was the deferral of a vote on the moratorium for two weeks. The discussion on Council prior to the deferral suggests that there is a strong chance that the moratorium will not be approved.

Before reporting on the two above items, let’s note the assertiveness of Council members Moody and Waring in seeking more funding for West Ashley. These Council members for some time now have been decrying the dearth of funding for the area and in their view, the disproportionate amounts that have flowed to the Peninsula. The two Council members were very loud in their denunciations last night but they were specifically targeting an allocation for the Ashley River Walk from the Hospitality Tax. This Walk was in a TIF district so why was the City dipping into Hospitality funds? The Walk already had funding and was taking up funds that could be deployed elsewhere – like West Ashley.

Mayor Tecklenberg defended the allocation and stressed the importance of the Walk. He also denied that West Ashley had been as badly treated as Council member Waring had claimed. Council member Waring forcefully requested/demanded that Council be provided with information that detailed the receipt of funds from the Accommodation and Hospitality taxes and their deployment over the last 20 years, specifically to the Peninsula and West Ashley. The request was made twice, the last was after the Mayor concluded the meeting and people were leaving. We thought we heard over the din that the Staff could not fully meet the Councilmember's request.

There is no doubt that West Ashley is strongly represented on Council, particularly by the Mayor who lives in that part of the City. And the implementation of the Plan West Ashley will be a future focus of the Council. But it should be said that the Peninsula – its historic residences, restaurants, cultural activities - is the draw to the millions of tourists who visit the City each year. The state laws that govern the taxes mandate that the tax funds go back to help the hospitality industry from which the taxes are extracted. Council members that represent the Peninsula have not been very vocal about the hopes of the Council members to divert funds. The needs of West Ashley may be great but so are those of the Peninsula viz. flooding of the Historic Districts. We think that the demands of Council members Waring and Moody should be more vigorously challenged in future.

The Plan West Ashley has been a long time coming and its creation wasn’t helped by the impediments imposed by some Council members in creating the West Ashley Revitalization Commission which guided the plan. Council members spoke glowingly of the hard work of Commission workers, staff and the public.

The report is long and very strong on objectives. The full report can be seen on the City’s web site. Press Download file to see Overview. But as former City Council member Aubrey Alexander said at the public hearing, it will be the implementation that counts. And this view was shared by other Council members who also spoke of the need to acquire funding.

There were a number of citizens that spoke at the public hearing and many were not supportive. The complained about flooding, roads and traffic congestion. Many did not want more construction and failed to see how the plan – encouraging denser development - would ease congestion. No Council member rose to their support.
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The Mayor told the meeting at its beginning that Council member Wagner planned to seek a deferral of a vote on the Johns Island moratorium. This did not seem to deter the many citizens who turned up to speak to the issue in Citizens Participation. The majority supported the moratorium and decried the impact of development, its contribution to flooding, and the extreme traffic congestion on the two exits to the island at peak hours. Many commented on the Johns Island Community Plan of 2008 and how it had been ignored by City Council. Some wanted it resuscitated or a plan comparable to that prepared for West Ashley. Only a few opposed the moratorium and they noted its unfairness and adverse impact.

Council member Wagner spoke at length when he proposed the deferral of a vote. He broadly said that Council needed to consider all that it was voting on. There were some 2,300 dwelling units in the pipeline but even if the moratorium were approved, 800 of these could still be built this year. He wondered what a moratorium could achieve considering the strong building pipeline. And what about the Johns Island Community Plan? He also warned of the likely job losses. It seemed that the Council member was very dubious about the moratorium. And subsequent discussion indicated that others were too.

Council member Moody indicated support for the deferral but strong opposition to a moratorium. Council member Seekings also was skeptical. Of the hundreds or so emails he had received on the issue, the majority were not in favor of the moratorium.

Mayor Tecklenberg, perhaps recognizing the opposition to the moratorium, proposed at the conclusion of Council member Wagner’s speech that a Johns Island Infrastructure Commission be formed. It would include City and County Council members, City and County staff, and representatives of the public, developers and the State. He also spoke of the need to develop a new funding mechanism.

No vote was taken on the Mayor’s proposal. The vote deferring the vote on the moratorium was unanimous.