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Two victories, at long last

The Advocate

The City Council vs. the Planning Commission

In a rare win for the residents and concerned citizens of Charleston, the Planning Commission flatly rejected the fourth and latest attempt to diminish its own authority and independence.

Since 2016, certain city council members have attempted to emasculate the Planning Commission by making it easier for city council to override any planning commission decision an applicant objected to, but this latest attempt was not only last minute, it was disrespectful.

The city council had already scheduled a meeting with Planning Commission members to discuss various issues and improve dialogue between them on December 6th, yet city council unexpectedly moved ahead with a first reading on its latest power grab ordinance on November 13th to be placed the Planning Commission’s November 26th agenda. This brazen, last-minute council maneuver clearly exposed its lack of intent to treat the Planning Commission as a valued partner.

The current ordinance, in place since 1931, requires a vote of 10 members or 75 percent of the council to overturn a planning commission ruling. It’s obviously still working, as the City Council achieved that majority to overrule a planning commission decision very recently. This latest proposed ordinance would’ve reduced that number to “at least eight members of City Council present and voting,” making it far easier for the council to ride roughshod over the PC.

In another surprise, at least to this observer, were the two times that Councilmember Carol Jackson rose during the public comment period as seemingly the only advocate for the ordinance. She had voted in council to put this motion on the planning commission’s agenda. The surprise was when she urged the planning commission members to “defer” voting on the ordinance until after their planned December meeting with council. Then why was it foisted on the planning commission agenda if the goal was only to defer it until after that meeting? Perhaps she had read the room.

The opposition was unequivocal. Councilmember Mike Seekings spoke next, eloquently noting that “there is nothing wrong with the current ordinance,” overrides were possible as was recently proven, checks and balances are important, “and the vast number of cities and states require a supermajority to overturn planning commission decisions.” Seekings added, “You, members of the planning commission, are the experts. Council members, we’re just generalists. We need your expertise.”

An Historic Charleston spokesperson warned this ordinance could further politicize the planning process, the Preservation Society’s Robert Gurley questioned the last minute notice for this agenda item, and Luke Daniels, president of the Harleston Village Association, added his voice in opposition.

I also commented, “This issue keeps coming up, it’s like Whack-a-Mole. The public gets concerned, but soon people stop engaging and attending the meetings. Wearing down the public is no democracy."

When it was time for discussion and a vote, Planning Commission member Henry Lesesne said, “I came here tonight expecting to defer the motion. But after listening to the comments tonight, I will vote to deny the motion.” Another said, “Let’s put a fork in it.” And they did. The vote to quash the ordinance was unanimous.

Charleston is fortunate to have a planning commission made up of dedicated volunteers who do their homework on applications and take their responsibilities seriously; many cities do not have such a commission to keep their city planning somewhat on track. The city council, with far more tasks and issues to deal with, and with zero demonstrated planning experience, should respect the knowledge, effort and diligence of the Planning Commission volunteers. The argument that they are not elected fails given that elected council members are the very people who select those members.

The real question is why does the city council continue these power grabs? Are they to better manage growth, to limit overdevelopment? Perhaps not.

The Low Battery Wall

This is a perfect time of year for a late afternoon walk along the Low Battery wall as the sun settles low on the horizon, its blazing orange radiance lighting up the blue sky and reflecting across the Ashley River. It’s both breathtaking and peaceful. But don’t look down.

Underneath you, the 100-year-old Low Battery Wall is crumbling. A three-year-old study found that most of the wall was in poor shape, much of it in failure mode. That was several storms ago. You really don’t need a civil engineer to tell you the wall is not far from collapse, just lean over the railing — if you dare — and check out the sections of missing concrete, the rusted rebar exposed and rotting. A hundred years is a long time to stand up to the sea.

Finally, there’s good news. Last week, Charleston City Council quickly approved an additional $414,000 to complete the redesign of all storm drainage and pavement along Murray Boulevard, along with a complete street design with new safety features and the addition of some “parklets.” This brings the total committed design costs to $1,000,000 to complete the plans for the Low Battery Wall project.

This is good news. “The Advocate” strongly objected to the original, convoluted design that included an unnecessary linear park parallel to White Point Garden that screwed up the traffic flow and eliminated dozens of parking spaces. Fortunately this new design is simpler, cheaper — and the final design is to be completed within the next 60 days. Once the documents are in hand, the first phase of the project will be put out to bid.

The city has already identified $25 million to begin the first 880 feet of wall construction from the Coast Guard station eastward towards “The Turn.” The total cost of the wall is unknown, but once the bids come in for this first phase, the cost of the entire 4800 feet of wall can be more accurately estimated.

Rebuilding the wall would certainly have been cheaper a decade or two ago when we knew that it needed to be done, but there is a silver lining. We’ve learned a lot more about king tides, storm surges, sea level rise, drainage and flooding in those past 20 years, and this new wall will be designed and built with the benefit of that knowledge.

Is there a link between these two stories? Yes.

Without the strong engagement of concerned Charlestonians, we’d still be talking about the battery wall and Charleston City Council would’ve sabotaged the planning commission’s effectiveness. Advocates’ understanding and engagement in working to solve the issues facing this community has made all the difference. There’s a lot to do, and we won’t win all the battles that we should (remember the Sgt. Jasper), but we should all become advocates to ensure Charleston’s livable and prosperous future.

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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