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City Council, April 23

Mayor takes heat over law school property sale
Committee to be formed to amend Accommodation Overlay
Marc Knapp

It was not a good night for the Mayor. The Council and Ways and Means meetings took up nearly 5 hours and a good portion of this time was discussion over the sale of the Law School property, and changes to the Accommodation Overlay zoning. Over both items, the Mayor had little support from Council and was strongly criticized.

The School of Law property item came up during the report of the Real Estate Committee. As most viewers are probably aware, the property was virtually given to the Law School as a potential campus. (The sales price was about $870,000 and financed by a note from the City). There was a reverter clause that said the ownership reverted to the City if the property were to be used for anything else than a campus. The school in recent years said that the property was not large enough to accommodate an adequate sized campus and the City agreed to the sale of the property with 75% of the proceeds to be used for buying another but more suitable property and the balance of the $12.5 million after closing costs returning to the City.

To the surprise of many, the sale price was an unexpectedly high $12.5 million. But what generated ire amongst citizens and Council members was the purchaser was a developer that planned a 255-room hotel when the community was crying loud for a stop to hotel building. This was a finger in the eye of a Council that had been very generous in its support of the school.

The wording on the Way and Means agenda was discussion and consideration to direct legal staff to provide 60 days notice to the Charleston School of Law that the City does not intend to extend the agreement regarding the sale of 431 Meeting Street

We are not sure how this will all play out. We understand that there is an enforceable contract between the developer and the school, which may mean that the sale will proceed. But what happens if it doesn’t?

Nobody disputed the value of the school to Charleston and in particular the Peninsula. The Mayor wondered what difference the proposed action would make. But as Council member White noted, the school said very recently that the present site would be suitable for a campus if could add 2 floors to a structure allowed under present zoning.

Council members vented, claiming that when they approved the removal of the reverter clause, information was not given as to the Mayor’s past involvement with the School, the financial gain by a family member, the lack of information on the value of the property, and the inaction in removing the property from the Accommodation Overlay. The Mayor refuted all of these accusations though it seemed few were listening.

It is clearly hoped by Council that the School remains at 431 Meeting and it would seem that Council would be amenable to allowing the school to add two floors beyond what is presently allowed. But will the developer willingly void the contract in the light of the City’s hostility? If it doesn’t, the City gains only the repayment of a note of $865,000, accrued interest and 25% of $12.5 million. We doubt that no Council member wants the City to receive all of the proceeds from a potential sale and would rather see the school stay where it is; and more importantly deny the opportunity for a 255 – room hotel.

In a sense the heated discussion over the proposed amendments of the Accommodation Overlay Zoning was related to that of the Law School. Both generated acrimony but it probably would have been less tense if not for the very unwelcome inability of the City to stop the 255-hotel room development.

Plans to heavily amend the Accommodations Overlay Zoning have been before Council for some months. But as some Council members pointed out, they went nowhere. The Mayor was accused on inaction but retorted that Council itself seemed reluctant to move forward. After all, he did propose removing many properties from the Overlay Zone but there was little support from Council.

It would be impossible to concisely describe the changes proposed last night. They were far reaching and included limiting the amount of displacement of housing units and retail space, linking hotel develop to the provision of affordable housing in some manner, and preventing the over concentration of hotels in any area.

Nobody was happy about the amendments but the Mayor and Council member Jackson thought it was a first step. Further amendments could be made in the second and third readings. Council member Gregorie thought the wording was often too vague in what was proposed. Council member Shahid suggested that a committee of 7 or so, drawn from Council members, industry and the community be formed to study the issue. Council member Seekings said that such a committee should have been formed some 9 months ago when the issue first arose. Most agreed and Council member White lamented the limited input and poor communication by the Mayor. He said that he had spoken to many people across the spectrum of interested parties and that he could put a committee together in a few days and have a framework for discussion by the next City Council meeting.

Council voted for a deferral with the understanding that a committee be formed with Council member White leading.

And then there was the Kerr Tract Planned Unit Development. The PUD covers some 70 acres on Johns Island, located close to the critical junction of Maybank Highway and River Road. About 800 dwellings are planned, somewhat less that the 841 units allowed under existing zoning. Critical to the whole community, the “southern pitchfork” of the road system to alleviate traffic congestion on the island goes through the property. The owners are deeding a Right of Way (ROW) for part of it and plan to approve a ROW over the remaining part of the property.

Council members Wagner and Mitchell were the first to speak of the traffic congestion on the island and being close to a very busy intersection, the development would exacerbate it. No Council member was going to deny the congestion and that it would get worse. But the PUD was better than the present zoning. And beside, the community was getting the ROW for free.

The pitchfork system would certainly help alleviate congestion and ease movement to and from the proposed development. The Mayor stated that he had spoken to County Chair Rawl last year about accelerating development of the southern prong but there was little response. County Chair Summey in a recent discussion indicated greater willingness.

The City approved the PUD with a first reading and to take an opportunity to make changes by the second and third reading though Council member Wagner was not sure what changes could be sought. We think Council was looking for more certainty about the remaining part of the ROW over the Kerr properties.

For the record, the “pitch fork” was proposed some 10 years or so ago. Work is underway on the northern prong but nothing is happening in relation to the southern. Initially, environmental or wetland issues stopped progress but according to County Council member Rawl who was County Chair last year, there was no money provided for development.