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Our mayoral hopefuls - Where do they stand (or float?)

September 9, 2019

August’s filing deadline formally set the field for those vying for Charleston City Hall. We asked the candidates about the issues that matter most for Charlestonians — flooding, traffic, planning and development. We hope what follows is informative and offers insight into the ideas key candidates wish to accomplish should we, the citizens, raise them to the Holy City’s top job.

 

What is your specific plan for fully funding flooding relief efforts both on and off the peninsula?

 

Sherri Irwin: The first thing I would do regarding funding for flooding is quit taking grants for things like building a hotel. Last year the city took a $60 million dollar grant to build a hotel. Not one penny of our tax dollars should be used for hotels. I would have tried to use that grant money for mitigating flooding.

 

I would also stop the scam called “public/private partnerships,” which is a clever way of saying the taxpayer pays for part of it. This is one reason why the development is so out of control, which is making the flooding worse. I would try to use those tax dollars for mitigating flooding as well. 

 

Renee Orth: Flooding relief projects must address the main cause of flooding — climate collapse. Thankfully initiatives that will shrink our carbon footprint while mitigating flooding are generally far less expensive than old-paradigm large public works projects. As described in the Dutch Dialogues we must build with nature, respect the force of water and capitalize on natural storm protection. Climate Victory Rain Gardens — in front yards, churchyards, anywhere there are ornamental lawns — will sequester carbon in the soil and vastly expand the water holding capacity of our land while growing food and natural habitat. This is an example of a low-capital initiative that will add to community prosperity on multiple fronts. Additionally, we must cease shortsighted development of wetlands and filling lowland areas that are exacerbating already dire conditions. All new developments must include the ability to retain rainwater. Citizens must be encouraged and supported to install rain barrels and water retaining techniques — this is a critical civic duty.

 

Capital needed for conventional projects will come from a combination of federal funds, half-cent sales tax revenue (where roads are implicated) and local taxes on those most able to pay which will be used as leverage to secure bond funding.

 

Mike Seekings: The city of Charleston, with its 135,000 residents, is currently operating on a balanced budget of $215 million, which is up nearly 23 percent since 2014. However, except for the Low Battery Seawall project (which is designed and has an identified funding source through completion, including $25 million already in the bank), no money has been reserved for addressing flooding relief efforts, nor has a specific plan been mapped out for prioritizing or funding large-scale flood mitigation infrastructure throughout the city.

 

While many studies have been produced, we still lack a unifying plan. Such a roadmap for fully funding flooding relief efforts must, by definition, begin with identifying projects in order of importance and magnitude. Here are my top five (with the estimated cost to implement or complete):

 

Calhoun West/Hospital District ($400 million)

Church Creek Drainage Basin Improvements, Rezoning and Water Management Infrastructure ($100 million)

West Ashley Drainage Easement Acquisition and Maintenance ($25 million)

King & Huger Flooding Relief ($30 million)

Johns Island Implementation of Dutch Dialogues Water Management Plan ($25 million-plus)

 

These are not prioritized to the exclusion of other projects but represent the most critical and unfunded efforts. Our current sources of revenue are limited and primarily include our General Fund, Drainage Fund, and Stormwater fund, none of which produce the resources necessary to tackle flooding infrastructure. We must, instead, look to effective leverage other sources, including:

State Infrastructure Bank:  On Day 1, I will have the city begin the application process for $200 million dollars to commence work in the Church Creek Basin and on the Calhoun West project. These efforts will both address flooding and critical mobility infrastructure.

 

Charleston County half-cent sales tax:  These funds are in largely derived from sales in the city and should be used for critical flooding infrastructure needs, all of which, when complete, will alleviate the problem of water collection in our roads.

 

Cruise ship passengers:  Consistent with the unanimous vote of Council in 2015, we must implement a $25 per head landing fee which, based on current size and frequency, will raise an annual revenue of $10 million.

 

John Tecklenburg: With flooding relief now the largest item in our budget after public safety, it’s clear that our residents are already doing their part to help finance flooding relief. That’s why our city funding plan is currently focused on strengthening the other four legs of the stool:  asking our visitors to pay their fair share; working with federal and state officials, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Infrastructure Bank, to help finance specific, large scale projects; requiring developers to build stormwater systems and infrastructure that actually leave the area better off than it was before; And, starting in 2020, propose a new round of stormwater bonding, supported by stormwater fees and hospitality fees. 

 

With regard to asking more of our visitors, I continue to believe that we must get authority from the state in terms of drainage expenses from our current accommodations and hospitality taxes. With regard to state and federal assistance, I’m pleased to report that they will be considering at least one billion dollars in direct flooding assistance to Charleston over the next six months, as by-far the largest infrastructure projects in city history are brought forward in partnership with our federal and state officials. And finally, as we’ve already seen with the new stormwater rules in Church Creek, it is absolutely essential that the soon-to-be-unveiled citywide stormwater rules require developers to make real investments in the overall health of the drainage basins they’re working in, thereby leaving residents throughout the area better off than they were before any additional construction was considered.

 

Maurice Washington:  Flooding is an existential threat to our city; however, Charleston cannot be entirely free from flooding. Currently the city is addressing flooding problems in eight major drainage basins according to its sea level rise plan. It is cost prohibitive to fix this problem all at once, and therefore must be prioritized. To ensure that the most urgent of the projects are fixed first, benefit to cost analysis will be conducted. This benefit cost analysis what help determine to a rough degree of accuracy, the ratio of dollar value of benefits to the dollar value costs for a proposed project. Projects with higher benefits to cost ratios likely justify a higher priority ranking than those with lower ratios. I will ensure that the most knowledgeable individuals (hydrologists, geologists, meteorologists, engineers, certified floodplain managers, etc.) are placed in the proper supervisory positions of the current flood abatement projects. Individuals with the right skill sets are needed to execute, manage and/or oversee execution of these current multimillion dollar drainage projects. Also, as effective flood abatement cannot occur without the most current data, an immediate priority will be an assessment of the city’s flood hazard plan, flood map, and rainfall data to work towards protecting the city from known flood risk. In part, I will seek Greenbelt, Storm Water, State and Federal funds in addition to an impact fee on cruise ship passengers to pay for.

 

Gary White:  The city of Charleston currently has two specific funding sources dedicated to providing resources to address flooding, the Drainage Fund and the Storm Water Fund.

 

The Drainage Fund is funded every year by four mills in property taxes and creates an estimated $4.8 million annually. The drainage fund also receives approximately $700,000 every year in funding from business licenses, permits, and fees.

 

The second source is the Storm Water Fund, which is funded by storm water fees that are charged on business and consumers’ water bills. The current storm water fee is $10 per equivalent residential unit, which generates an estimated $11.36 million annually.

 

The city has received funding from other governmental entities in the past, such as the State Infrastructure Bank, Department of Transportation, Charleston Water Systems and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These funds are tied to specific capital projects and are normally received via a competitive grant processes and therefore are not considered guaranteed sources of revenue.

 

The current expenditures that are funded from the two recurring sources of revenue are the operating expenses for storm water operations, which are projected at $7.38 million for 2019, and $3.5 million in annual debt services payments, associated with the 2012 Storm Water Revenue Bonds, that will continue annually until 2033.

 

There are numerous other drainage projects currently identified. Three examples of such projects are the Calhoun West Project that is estimated to cost in excess of $400 million, the Lower Battery Project, that is estimated to cost $50 million and the Church Creek Drainage Basin Project, that is projected to cost $50 million.

 

Clearly the city will not be able to solely rely on these funding sources to complete these large drainage projects. It will need to seek additional funding sources from the federal, state and county governments. Those funding sources are future and uncertain.  So to have an immediate impact, as mayor I will create a fiscal mandate within the city’s budgeting process that requires the city to appropriate resources annually to support a more structured approach to maintaining our current drainage infrastructure, which will result in an immediate effect on these flooding issues. Additionally, I will propose a long-term strategic plan that outlines very specific actionable items that are financially obtainable with measurable and sustainable outcomes.

 

What plan or project is at the top of your list for improving traffic congestion?

 

SI:  As far as the traffic congestion, I would stop with trying to increase the population density. It will only make traffic worse. I would also try to have the buses pull into a parking lot when they are ahead of schedule instead of just sitting in the right lane. I have sat in the right lane a number of times because of that reason.

 

The city needs to sync lights during rush hour to move more cars through congested intersections quicker and have the lights stay greener longer when cars are backed up. Those two things aren’t major projects, but they would certainly help and would not cost much.

 

RO: All traffic improvement projects must shrink our carbon footprint. We are at ground zero of the effects of climate collapse so it is incumbent on us to lead our nation on this front. A key plank of my platform is the launch of a real ride share app that will put our fleet of public vehicles — owned by we the people — at the service of an efficient and ecologically responsible public (as in owned by the public, not the government) transportation system. This app will make carpooling easy, fun, affordable, and financially rewarding for drivers. We cannot afford — financially or environmentally — to build new roads for more fossil fuel burning vehicles. Our future depends on our ability to put our underutilized resources (here, our cars that we often drive with no passengers) to their best use for the growth of community prosperity.

 

MS:  Since our founding in 1670 as Charles Town, the city and surrounding region have never had a large-scale, regional, multimodal public access transportation system or network. The closest we came is the streetcar/trolley system that operated on the peninsula in the early-to-mid-1900s. At its peak, that network provided residents and visitors car-free access to the peninsula. It also included a link to ferry service and was, for a time, wildly successful.

 

Today, as a city and a region, we cannot pave our way out of ever-increasing congestion. While major projects such as 526 move through the approval process, there are several other identified road projects that must be completed in short order and include: a flyover at the intersection of Highway 17 and Main Road; a flyover/loop at Folly Road and the James Island Connector; and construction of the northern and southern pitchforks on John’s Island. Improvements along Central Park Road and Maybank Highway and the long overdue bike/pedestrian bridge across the Ashley River are also vital and need to be completed in rapid course.

 

The primary key to ensuring long-term transportation stability and economic growth of our region, however, is Lowcountry Rapid Transit. With a dedicated corridor from Summerville to the Medical District, it will be the first –—very large — step in a transit system that will branch throughout the city and the tri-county area. LCRT will provide a true alternative to congestion and smart zoning along the corridor will allow for transit-oriented development, live-work-play communities, and attainable, work-accessible housing. The project is funded locally, is in design, and is of vital importance to our community.

 

JT: With 80 percent of our city’s roads actually owned and operated by the state and county and three of the four largest municipalities in the state sitting side by side here in the Lowcountry, traffic is in many ways the ultimate regional issue. As a result, we’ve taken an area-wide approach to transportation that combines direct city action with strong regional planning and partnerships. 

On the city side, that has meant the creation and passage of our first citizen-led citywide transportation plan, a set of very specific improvements to 13 traffic corridors that our residents helped design in a months-long series of public input sessions, that are eligible for CHATS funding (Council of Governments). Also on the city level, we’ve worked to expand transportation choices by joining with Charleston Moves on a number of initiatives, including the development of the People Pedal Plan and the application for federal assistance on a dedicated bike/pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River.

 

On the regional side, I was proud to help lead the effort to complete the penny, creating a billion-dollar fund for new and better roads, the construction of a bus rapid transit system from Summerville to Charleston, and the conservation of thousands of acres that will now never be used for irresponsible, traffic-creating development.

 

MW: Extreme traffic congestions have negative consequences on our quality-of-life, economy, and public safety. Unchecked over development in and around the proposed construction site of I-526, has created maddening traffic congestions that need to be fix now! As mayor, working with county and state officials, and broad community stakeholders, I WILL: * Act with urgency to complete the flyover at Main Road and Highway 17. It is funded through the half-cent sales tax. * Push for funding and completion of the southern Pitch Folk plan at Maybank Highway and River Road on Johns Island. * Traffic signal improvements by updating signal timing to reflect current traffic conditions can greatly reduce congestions. Additionally, the strategy of simply building new roads and widening the existing ones, needs to be supplemented. It is imperative that local governments coordinate the completion of I-526, Other transportation infrastructure investments MUST be implemented including local land-use plans, management of our transportation systems, and harnessing new technology to control traffic. If it does not do so, congestions will be exacerbated not relieved.

 

GW: It is my belief that people will choose the most convenient transportation option for them based on their own circumstances. Today, the most convenient option available for most people is to drive their own vehicles. So, let’s consider this to be the root cause of the problem. The biggest issue is that most people do not live where they work. For example, 83 percent of the residents of West Ashley don’t work in West Ashley. So, every morning 83 percent of the most heavily populated areas in the city of Charleston get in their cars and drive somewhere else to work. So, what if half of those people didn’t have to get on the road and leave West Ashley every day. That would greatly reduce the number of vehicle trips on I-526 or other major connection points every day.  Under my administration, I will create an Economic Development Department that will be tasked with supporting the creation of job centers across the city.  The goal, as they recruit new companies to come to Charleston, they will encourage those employers to locate their businesses in areas across the city where their employees can live and work in the same area.

 

Who or what (books, theorists, notable leaders, etc.) would you say have most influenced your own thoughts about urban planning and development?

 

SI:  I do not support urban planning for Charleston and our suburbs. Again, that just makes traffic worse, crime goes up and the quality of life goes down. I have been going to the West Ashley Revitalization meetings and witnessed them try to get the residents of Maryville and Ashleyville out of their homes and they were talking about turning the road I live on into a corridor … meaning they were wanting to get people out of their homes and build high rise apartments. This “urban planning” is destroying our private property rights.

 

RO: Bill Mollison’s permaculture theory of design points to the evolutionary wisdom of natural systems. In particular, permaculture emphasizes using existing resources to their full potential in order to optimize system functionality. It also instructs us to work with rather than against nature.

 

Among the resources we are not putting to their best use in our community: our people, our vehicles and our land. Poverty is marginalizing huge segments of our community to the detriment of all. Quality education and job training (especially in skills needed to transition to a green economy) for citizens of all ages must be a priority. Our vehicles are chronically underutilized. We can use technology to facilitate putting this unused capacity at the service of a more efficient “public” transportation system. Our land is being squandered growing ornamental lawns that are significant sources of water pollution and contributors to greenhouse gases. We must put these open spaces at the service of a more resilient community by growing Climate Victory Rain Gardens. Not everyone needs to be a gardener. We can support a cadre of trained regenerative urban farmers who cultivate healthy soil capable of holding massive amounts of rainwater and grow nourishing food.

 

MS:  Lessons come in many forms — some inspirational, some cautionary.

 

The Power Broker, a biography of Robert Moses, longtime head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in New York City, was a revelation, showing both the awesome potential of public works projects but also serving as a warning for what happens when leaders do not prioritize residents’ quality of life and equity among citizens.

 

In contrast, I have drawn insight from Jane Jacobs, who often sparred with Moses in the middle of the 20th century. Her advocacy for the complexity of the human experience in diverse communities like Charleston offers many lessons as our city continues to evolve.

 

Here in Charleston, John Charles Olmsted’s work with Hampton Park is a constant reminder of the value of quality landscape architecture in what blossomed into an urban setting. And today, City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey has proven to be a leader of vision who has worked tirelessly to improve the city. Much of his effort will never earn him personal accolades but it will have a positive, tangible, and lasting impact on Charleston.

 

JT:  Well, obviously, Jane Jacobs has been a huge influence, as she has been on just about everyone who’s ever wrestled with the issues of modern urban planning — even Robert Moses, though in more of a negative way there, I suppose. Put simply, her vision of an organic, human-sized city that respects its historic structures while protecting a wide diversity of uses has been a critical guide to my thinking on everything from hotel overdevelopment to height zoning and more.

 

Beyond that, I’d single out four others — Mayor Joe Riley, who demanded a level of excellence in civic design that was and remains a benchmark for cities everywhere; Andres Duany, whose firm was so helpful in the recent BAR reforms that brought down heights and encouraged a classical approach, while also leaving space for new ideas and boldness where appropriate; Victor Dover, who worked directly with thousands of our citizens to re-envision West Ashley as a revitalized space combining the best of urbanism with the suburban living our West Ashley residents love; and, finally, our own Jacob Lindsey, who balances a new urbanist vision with a strong, practical concern for resident quality-of-life that’s very much in line with my own priorities.

 

MW:  The book, Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler, most influenced my thoughts about urban planning and development.

 

GW:  My thoughts about urban planning and development are most influenced by my life experiences growing up in Charleston. As a native Charlestonian, I feel I have a very unique understanding of what makes up the charm and character of our historic city. My family has been in Charleston for many generations. My great uncle was the city attorney for 27 years and my great-great grandfather was the warden of the Old City Jail on Magazine Street.  My family helped shape our city and now it is my responsibility to help preserve it.

 

While there is no place quite like the Holy City, could you name another place with a major civic project you’d like to see Charleston emulate?

 

SI:  No I cannot think of any civic project I would like to see Charleston emulate. I want to protect historical Charleston and our suburbs.

 

RO: Atlanta’s recently announced seven-acre food forest is an inspiring project that embodies permaculture design philosophy. It works with nature to address multiple needs at once — food justice, wellness (by making healthy produce accessible to all), resilience (we must be prepared for major disruptions to our food system), climate collapse (regenerative agriculture is a key strategy for decreasing greenhouse gases), reconnecting people to nature and to one another. Emulating this project would also serve to mitigate flooding by creating large scale rain gardens capable of holding immense amounts of rain water in soil, swales, plants and trees. Unlike massive old-paradigm concrete-heavy infrastructure projects, this nature-based solution creates ongoing community prosperity for all.

 

Parts of our city are contaminated with toxic waste from previous shortsighted activities (let’s learn from our mistakes). We can remediate these areas with regenerative agriculture. In particular, hemp has soil cleansing abilities and is an incredible carbon negative building resource. We can use hemp to transition local construction to climate responsible materials that support a vibrant and sustainable local economy.

 

MS:  Because there is no place like Charleston and it is our home, it is vital that we vigilantly protect and work to improve the quality of life for all our residents. As part of that, all civic projects should be multi-purposed and enhance livability. The Dutch have embraced such an ethos. Whether it is protecting a beach town from the encroaching North Sea while simultaneously providing underground parking or safeguarding a city from a flooding river and building an amphitheater in a rarely used spillway, the Dutch do not accept single-purpose solutions to water management. (Such projects are expensive to build and maintain and ultimately fail the test of time.) Rather, the Dutch seek solutions for water challenges that also add economic, environmental, recreation, mobility, and social benefits.

 

That is the philosophy Charleston should emulate as we work through solutions. The Dutch say they think big while acting small and acting swiftly. With this approach, they have successfully defended a country largely below sea level and learned to live with the environment that surrounds them without be enveloped by it. In Charleston, a similar approach will ensure the long-term success of the projects we undertake to help us live with water.

 

JT:  One of the great things about being mayor is the opportunity to see what’s working all across the country and to bring those ideas home to Charleston, which we’ve been able to do in several areas, from affordable housing to improved city services. But our real focus in recent years has been on flooding, where the Dutch have been our best teachers. 

 

First, from a governance perspective, I’d like to see South Carolina pursue a regional flooding strategy similar to the Dutch water boards, which have the resources and authority to manage water throughout the entirety of a given drainage basin. This way, we could eliminate the patchwork regulations that leave too many of our citizens being flooded by problems that were created upstream, outside their jurisdiction, while ensuring that all new development was always first tested against a stringent flooding and stormwater standard.

 

Second, I think we can learn a great deal from the Dutch Ruimte voor de Rivier, or “Room for the River” program, which sees water not as an enemy to be defeated, but as a relationship to be managed, with quality of life top of mind throughout that process. This is the kind of thinking that will not only protect our city physically but also protect the extraordinary way of life that makes Charleston so special in the first place.

 

MW:  Chattanooga, Tennessee — The vision depicts Chattanooga's next great neighborhood, where people can live, work and enjoyed themselves alone the Tennessee River. The concepts outline a highly walkable come bike-friendly car-optional neighborhood, (which does not mean you eliminate in cars but instead expand the transportation choices). Tree-lined streets and green public spaces are used to restore balance and help heal the land, which was once home to heavy industry.

 

GW:  Charleston is a very unique city, which is the reason why we have always been a leader as opposed to trying to emulate others. However, one opportunity that we can learn from other municipalities is how to create a more efficient and effective public transportation system. Our current system today lacks the ability to be a reasonable option for the majority of our city’s residents. If we were to emulate any other civic project I would like to see the Charleston Region emulate the light rail system that Charlotte, North Carolina has created. I recognize that this is a very expensive endeavor. However, if we are ever going to truly create a robust public transportation system we need to start thinking bigger than just expanding our bus routes and building bus shelters.

 

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