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City Council, October 9

Corps of Engineers to study flooding on the Peninsula
Vote on STRs deferred but issues remain
Marc Knapp

There were a number of interesting items on last night’s agenda. Most interesting was the agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, and the proposed amendments to the Short Term Rentals (STR) Ordinance, passed only a few months ago.

There was little discussion about the agreement with the Army Corps after the Mayor spoke, for indeed there was no reason to disagree. The Corps is to make a study “that will evaluate possible actions intended to provide long-term risk reduction from flooding on the peninsula”. The agreement will provide for the allocation by the Corps of $3 million to the study. The City is not obliged to make any financial contribution.

The Mayor noted the importance of the study. Not only would it provide information and recommendations in coping with flooding, but it would be an important and necessary step to secure Federal funding for any proposed projects.

A comment made by the Mayor later in the evening was interesting and relevant. A figure of $2 billion was oft quoted as the cost of dealing with the City’s flooding. We have wondered where this figure came from; it seems from a City staff member. However his $2 billion cost estimate also included a $1 billion estimate to repairs for roads et. al. So it seems the potential City’s financial burden from flooding mitigation will be much less than the well touted $2 billion.

The first published agenda for last night’s meeting contained amendments to the STR ordinance. But on Monday, the item was deferred. Notwithstanding, there was discussion.

We are not sure why it was deferred. Probably the major reason was that Council member Waring who, with Council member Mitchell sought most of the amendments, was absent. But the large outpouring of opposition to the amendments may have been a contributing factor.

A summary, from the ordinance, of the proposed amendments follows;

To amend Chapter 54 of the Code of the City of Charleston (Zoning Ordinance) to modify the existing regulations applicable to Short Term Rental uses in the City of Charleston by creating a new short term rental overlay zone called the King Street Corridor, KSC Overlay Zone; by permitting commercial short term rentals as a conditional use on large lots in certain residential zoning districts; by permitting nearby parking lots and public garages to satisfy the additional off-street parking requirements applicable to residential short term rentals; by removing any maneuverability requirements for these additional off-street parking spaces; by eliminating the requirement that residents in Category 1, 2, and 3 Short Term Rentals remain on the property while guests are present; and by eliminating the requirement that Category 1 Short Term rentals be located within an existing structure or accessory building that is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is perhaps strange that with so much time and consideration in crafting the original ordinance, amendments would be proposed only a few months later that virtually gut the ordinance. One has to go back to the final reading for the answer. Debate and discussion on the STR ordinance had been long, the night was flying and Council members were weary. Probably all members wanted to pass the ordinance but many had specific issues. The energy of Council was dissipated and it seemed there would be no reconciliation and the ordinance would die. The Mayor stepped up and saved the day. He asked that the ordinance be passed but that Council consider all of the issues that members had and create a list of possible exceptions. Rewriting the ordinance was not a consideration.

As he was absent last night, we do not know Council member Waring’s reaction to the amendments. Council member Mitchell indicated that they went beyond what he sought. And Council member Moody thought the same in that he sought only some exceptions, not a rewriting

We’d also like to acknowledge a comment made by Director Lindsey at a meeting, we think shortly after that approving the STR ordinance. He was not happy and said it is very difficult to write exceptions into an ordinance, simpler to amend the ordinance. We sympathize with him for we think he did as he was instructed and that the amended ordinance before Council fulfilled the wishes of those Council members desiring changes. Putting the changes in the form of exceptions would have had the same impact in our opinion.

The Mayor and others asked that the issue be deferred until the City had more feedback on the success of the ordinance, enforcement and other possible issues. There was considerable discussion and also about how any proposed amendments would be handled – would they go back to the Planning Commission and to a resuscitated Task Force. No vote was taken.

There are strong opinions on both sides of the STR issue. We won’t speculate on the likely final form of the ordinance but any proposed changes seems certain to generate heat.

There was a 2019 budget workshop before yesterday’s meeting with a presentation by CFO Amy Wharton. No copies were immediately available for Council members or attendees. And besides, the writing in the Power Point presentation was very small and beyond the visionary capability of most present.

We caught the opening remark about an 8.3% increase in revenue for the General Fund but after that we were lost. Some costs were up, some down and the same with revenues. And there were other issues. She had a particular concern about Capital Projects. They totaled $400 million and many were unfunded.

Maybe a summary of Miss Wharton’s comments is suggested in the question by Council member Seekings. He asked whether she could give an estimate of the impact of a 1 to 3 millage increase, and a $1 increase in the Stormwater Fee. It seems that at least one Council member is thinking of a need for a small millage and fee increase.

There will be further deliberations on the budget over the next month.