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City Council, July 17

Confusing change to agenda format
Considering “financial hardship” as a zoning change criteria
Marc Knapp

It was a long and confusing meeting. It was an hour late in starting and extended well past 10 PM. It was even harder for Council members for they had to endure an executive session at the conclusion of the session. As to the confusion, the Mayor in his wisdom changed the format of the meeting agenda, placing new (or miscellaneous) business at the very end. Council was not happy with this and made its own changes which pushed Public Participation into the very late evening. Eighteen members of the public signed up to speak. But only three were left when it came time to speak.

Councilmember Waring suggested changes to the agenda format were made as “push back” for the hearing and vote on the apology for slavery at the last meeting. The Mayor denied this and said that he’d been studying the ordinance relating the placement of items on the agenda. It indicated that new business should be dealt with only after the conclusion of that relating to old business. It followed therefore that it should be at the end of the agenda and that’s where he placed it.

Council was not happy and voted to restore new business to the conclusion of public hearings. Most of the Council members who objected to the Mayor’s change thought the change would deter the public from attending meetings. Only a few citizens would be prepared to sit through a meeting to hear the new business. Perhaps paradoxically, resetting new business to its original place took its toll last night on Public Participation. There were six items in new business. They generated a lot of discussion on Council and significantly extended the length of the session and beyond the endurance of most of the citizens planning to speak.

Council member Waring was responsible for four of the six items in new business. The first, in my view the most controversial, was to provide the authority to the Planning Commission (PC) to consider financial hardship when rezoning properties. Financial hardship was not an allowed justification for granting variances and exceptions before the Board of Zoning Appeals. But he thought that it was not proscribed for the PC. Staff noted that zoning related to land, its use and the public good, and that a state ordinance did not allow financial hardship as consideration. It was also noted that zoning went with the land and not the individual. Notwithstanding, Council agreed for legal, staff, and the PC to study the issue. Representatives of the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation warned of the dangers of allowing financial hardship to be considered, effectively weakening zoning laws. We’d agree.

The second suggestion had more merit but Council was hesitant. Councilmember Waring suggested the business license revenue collected from short-term rentals be designated for permanent affordable housing. He argued that the creation of short-term rentals was at the expense of long-term housing and that it was therefore proper and justified to direct funds to boost affordable housing. The Mayor wondered whether revenue would be significant and make a worthwhile contribution to funding affordable housing. Council member Waring suggested that the revenue could be boosted if the penalties collected in applying the short-term rental ordinance were included. Councilmember Seekings said the revenue from licenses and penalties should firstly go to covering the costs of implementing and policing short-term rentals. It was finally decided that the matter should go to the Business License Committee for consideration.

Also in new business was a request by Council member Gregorie to amend the operating agreement between the City of Charleston and the Gaillard Management Corporation. However this was a financial matter and discussed earlier in Ways and Means. Council committed to the payment of $1.4 million a year for the next 11 years, but adjusted annually for inflation. However, the agreement is to be reviewed by legal with the insertion of language giving financial protection to the City. Some four years since its creation, the City has been supporting the management corporation. Payments were at slightly lower levels than proposed for the future but determined only on a yearly basis.
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We note the following zoning matter only because it took up an extraordinary amount of time last night. The matter was complex and resulted from errors made by the County Planning staff and oversights by the developer. City Council sent the matter back to the PC to sort out but the decision of the Commission was not totally to the liking of City Council. To override the PC vote, a super majority was needed.

The area in question falls under the Folly Road overlay zone agreed to by the City of Charleston, the County and the Town of James Island and City of Folly Beach. It was the intention that all of the municipalities and the County would have uniform zoning. Unfortunately, the County made some errors in the text of its ordinance and the boundary of one particular area – a Neighborhood Preservation sub area. As well, there was confusion as to whether the County ordinance related to a 5000 ft.² building footprint or a maximum gross floor area. A developer opted to annex into the City and was unaware of the error.

The PC voted to neither move the boundary line relating to a Neighborhood Preservation sub area nor to change “floor area” to “footprint” in the City ordinance. Council ultimately agreed that “floor area” should remain, but agreed that the boundary of the sub area should be moved. The vote was unanimous in relation to floor area, and near unanimous for moving the boundary (only Council member Jackson was opposed)

There is no way that we can describe the back-and-forth discussion and debate on Council. All we can say is that there was confusion, contradictions and misunderstandings. But in the end, Council voted to move the boundary line and to accept “footprint” as opposed to “building size”. As the Mayor said, this placed the City ordinance in line with the County – or strictly speaking with the County ordinance after it amends the errors. We wonder if this were the objective of the Council, and it should have been, why did discussion and debate take so long and require so much effort.

We also note that Council member Waring was set to do cart wheels over the result. It was not the result that gladdened him but the fact Council achieved the super majority vote to overturn a PC decision. This was a rare, maybe unique, thing.

Council member Waring has been a constant critic of the ordinance that requires the City Council to have a super majority vote - 75% - to overturn a PC decision. Council last night agreed to a meeting of City staff, the PC, Council members and the preservation groups to discuss amending the voting requirements. The PC was to consider reducing the super majority percentage to 60% at its meeting tomorrow. But the item is to be pulled from the agenda in view of the proposed meeting.