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The people speak, but is city council listening?

The Advocate

Big, controversial issues swirl around Charleston like king tides over Lockwood Boulevard — brackish, irritating and progressively menacing.

We know the two biggest issues facing Charleston, and we ought to know that we don’t have much time to address them. These issues are so fundamental and so intertwined that we need to agree on both solutions virtually simultaneously.

There are other big issues to solve that are not far behind.

How do we know what those two biggest issues are? Because The Preservation Society of Charleston recently competed an in-depth survey well beyond its membership to include almost 600 residents of Charleston — the citizens who live and pay taxes here. They got back responses that were informed, articulate and demonstrated a growing level of frustration.

You’ve certainly guessed at least one of those big issues, maybe both of them. Here’s an edited survey response from one resident:

“Set long-term targets for certain anti-flooding milestones and control on the year-over-year number of tourists.”

The top two issues facing Charleston

The Preservation Society asked respondents to rank the importance of each question in a series of critical issues facing the city. The large, full-peninsula and partial West Ashley survey also provided residents with two open-ended questions to allow for expansive personal comments and to gauge the intensity of their concerns.

Flooding is the top issue facing Charleston. A full 92 percent rank developing “a data-driven action plan to fix flooding” as “important” or “critically important.” But, as important as it is, a mere 17 percent of all those surveyed somewhat or completely agree that the “city is effectively prioritizing the need to fix flooding.” Whether it’s perception or reality, it’s clear that the mayor and city council must address this issue straightaway. Residents believe the city’s efforts are failing.

Potentially compounding this issue is a persistent but wholly unconfirmed rumor that some members of city council plan to target the millions earmarked for the Low Battery wall for their own districts. Regardless, constructing a higher, far more resilient Low Battery wall must proceed immediately.

“Flooding. If the city goes under water, what else matters?”

That second issue? Tourism. There’s widespread belief that the tourism management plan has not worked or was never fully implemented. Citizens have a notion that the city is being run for tourists while being overrun by them and that residents’ quality of life is deteriorating as a result.

Although this survey is new, the results shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Tourism is a livability issue, that’s why it’s so important,” said Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society. “Residents want a vibrant, living city, but now many feel they’re little more than a part of a tourist attraction. It’s a double-edged sword — if you want to support the tourism industry, then you have to support long-term livability for our residents.”

“It’s becoming THE great place to visit, but not to live.”

What do the residents think? To find out, the Society asked a series of specific livability-related questions. As you read them, you’ll confront the many tentacles of tourism:

“Add tougher restrictions on building new peninsula hotels”:

(88 percent said “important” or “critically important”)

“Shift funds from accommodation tax toward community infrastructure.”

(85 percent said “important” or “critically important.”)

“Conduct a city-wide traffic and parking study.”

(81 percent said “important” or “critically important.”)

“Enforce the 50-room cap on new hotels; we already have enough large hotels.”

(80 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

“Prioritize and lead the development of a regional mass transit plan”

(78 percent say “important” or “critically important.”)

“Offer property tax incentives for essential businesses for residents” to be able to stay downtown.”

(76 percent say “important” or “critically important.”)

“Allow residents to park free downtown after 6 p.m.”

(70 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

“Strongly enforce the new restrictions on short-term rentals …”

(69 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

“Create a new visitors center with remote parking in the upper peninsula with public transportation downtown”

(68 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

“Establish legal, enforceable limits on cruise ship passengers.”

(67 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

“Support capital investment in CARTA to ease traffic congestion.”

(65 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

“Lobby the SPA to move the proposed new cruise terminal away from downtown.”

(64 percent say “important” or “critically important”)

The results of this large resident survey are not ambiguous. Out of five options, the vast majority of respondents opted for heavy limitations on every single tourism impact surveyed, and the survey didn’t even ask about carriages, tour busses or pedicabs.

They voiced strong support to fix the flooding now and to use more taxes on tourists to help pay for it. If this were an election, residents would win over tourists in a landslide! Yet except for strong restrictions on short-term rentals, the city isn’t supporting any of the residents’ priorities to restrain tourism.

The city council vs. the rest of us

And just last week, City Councilmember Keith Waring and some fellow councilmembers attempted to gut those “strong restrictions” on short-term rentals. It didn’t matter that these new regulations were the result of extensive public input and a full year of work by a special task force appointed by the council itself, or that these regulations have already eliminated more than 600 illegal short-term rentals even though they’ve only been in effect for only two months!

One of Mr. Waring’s proposed amendments to the ordinance would permit whole house rentals. Imagine the number of out-of-town investors who would swoop into Charleston, snapping up affordable housing units to further drive lower-income residents and long-term renters off the peninsula.

“Protect the neighborhoods. City officials should manage short-term rentals as if they would have one next door on each side of their residence.”

If short-term rentals are the termites of tourism, chewing at the fabric of our neighborhoods by replacing neighbors with never-ending bands of strangers who have no interest or investment in our community, then whole house rentals are far worse. They eliminate the requirement for the person responsible for that property from ever being there! In collaboration with one of the giant international online brokers, hundreds of houses could be managed from “off,” or not at all!

Mayor John Tecklenburg is often blamed for the lack of progress in solving Charleston’s many issues. But the mayor proposed a hotel moratorium and he supported the short-term rental ordinances now in place. The hotel moratorium failed to pass in city council, the same city council that that now wants to dismember the short-term rental ordinance.

The new Preservation Society survey clearly shows what residents in Charleston want this city administration to do: Fix the flooding, restrict the many facets of this tourism onslaught and manage the city for the benefit of residents.

We must ask why some city council members seem consistently intent on ignoring residents’ concerns and thwarting the approval of their priorities. It’s probably time to thwart some re-elections.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

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