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City Council, November 13

City bans plastic bags, at least for now
Generating support for a natatorium in West Ashley
Warwick Jones

We thought the City’s plan to ban plastic bags would have little opposition. And indeed, the public comments were over whelming in favor. Council ultimately approved the ban but the vote was not unanimous and the approval was only for first reading. Some Council members wanted the opportunity for second thoughts before the final readings.

A recap. Discarded plastic and related products such as styro-foam are finding their way into our water ways, marshes and sea. They are polluting and damaging to the environment and wildlife. The plastic breaks down slowly and lingers for many years. Plastic litter is only one part of the problem. When it breaks down, the plastic remains in microscopic form and is ingested into the food chain, ultimately affecting humans. As pointed out by citizens and Council members, plastic bags are banned by Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, and shortly, by Mount Pleasant. The City of Charleston needed to fill the gap.

But is the solution so simple? The Mayor indicated that the State was working on legislation that would not allow a City or municipality to impose a plastics ban. It was therefore imperative that the City gets its ban in place before the State acted. But as Council member Seekings noted, the State may make its legislation retroactive, effectively nullifying any ban imposed by the City or others.

About 30 citizens spoke in Citizens Participation, most of them in regard to the plastic ban and in favor. About 50 citizens rose when the Mayor asked for an indication of support for the ban. Many of the speakers had participated in trash cleanups and noted the large volume of plastic and other debris collected. There was only one speaker opposed to the ban and he represented a maker of plastic bags. He cited statistics but spoke faster than we could record. But his point was that plastic bags were only a small part of the total waste generated.

Council member Moody was the first to speak to the issue and was skeptical. He did not dispute the problem of plastic trash but he thought the issue should be litter control. How could countries like the Netherlands have trash free streets but we in Charleston could not? Clearly attitudes to trash differed. He also thought the adverse impact of plastics (or related products) was largely from the fine particles resulting from road wear of tires. Council member White also noted the different human behavioral pattern and lamented it was something beyond legislation. He also noted that large number of plastic related items that were not included in the City’s ban. This list needed work.

Council member Lewis voted against the ban, wondering how it would be enforced. He also was concerned about the cost to consumers, a concern shared with Council member Mitchell. Council member Moody abstained from voting.
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Kathleen Wilson may no longer be on City Council, but her dream of a natatorium in West Ashley could well materialize, eventually. Council was treated to a presentation last night on the economic impact of a “Wellness and Aquatics Center”. Nothing has been finalized but it is the hope that such a center could be built close to the Citadel Mall in West Ashley.

The impact study was undertaken by Clemson University. It opined that by 2026 when construction was completed, some 500 jobs would be created with an economic impact of about $60 million a year. It was envisaged that the complex would not only be used by the community for sport and recreation, but would provide a service for MUSC. Competitive events were also expected to draw visitors, possible half from out of state.

How do you pay for it? There’s the rub. The cost would be about $50 million. Council member Moody thought that the City could raise about $30 million from a bond issue drawing on Accommodation Tax and Hospitality Fees to pay interest and amortization, or a TIF district. He thought the County could contribute $5 million and the State $10 million, and the rest, well who knows?

We think Council members were impressed and support the project. But how strong will that support be when the issue of financing is addressed. Flooding is a probably the biggest concern of the community and the cost of mitigation is probably in excess of $1 billion. From where will the funds come? The Mayor and Council have talked about tapping Accommodation taxes to help finance flooding control though Columbia has shown no inclination to support the City. And what will be the reaction of the hospitality industry if Accommodation taxes and Hospitality fees are diverted from those that generate the funds to those that hope to generate funds some years in the future?
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We were surprised at the proposed amendment to the City Code relating to hate crimes. We thought that Federal and State laws covered this area. Well apparently they don’t, at least not completely. Certainly there is a Federal Law but there is a distinction between it and that proposed by the City, a distinction we cannot fully define but it relates to “intimidation”. Surprisingly, there is no state law. Penalties for intimidation are modest under Federal law and will be the same under Charleston law. However, a miscreant can be tried and fined under both Federal and City laws.

An ordinance to amend the Code of the City of Charleston ,South Carolina, Chapter 21, to add a new Section 1 providing that a person who violates another section of Chapter 21, with the intent to intimidate another person or persons in whole or in part because of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental ability or national origin of the other person or persons is guilty of the separate offense of hate intimidation and shall be punished as provided in Section 1-16.”