Imagine you worked your whole life in a restaurant. Finally, you save up enough money to open your own. You do your due diligence and find a great spot to open the restaurant — it’s zoned to allow what you want to do and you apply for a permit to open, but you’re denied. In the time since you bought the property, the local government has come in and rezoned your property and a restaurant is no longer an allowable use. Do you want to live in a city where governmental intrusion results in small business owners being denied the opportunities they have worked so hard toward?
Property owners should feel secure that governmental influence will not intrude on their rights and devalue their property. That is the simple premise behind a law recently proposed by Charleston City Councilman Aubry Alexander. Unfortunately, groups wanting to take your property rights and tell you what to do with your property are pushing back.
Successful real estate development or opening or expanding a business isn’t an easy thing. Taxes, return on investment, tenant occupancy, market saturation, competition, market timing are all factors at play. That’s before government gets involved and tries to dictate what can and can’t work as a business. But, that’s where our local government should modify its approach — it shouldn’t be dictating whether a business can or can’t be successful; instead, it should be setting the playing field to ensure it is fair for everyone.
Eight other Charleston City councilmen stood with Councilman Alexander in strong defense of Charleston’s property owners and voted to continue research and discussion on the issue of downzoning. These councilmen understand it’s time to talk, not take.
In reality, the Elliottborough and Cannonborough issue is one of the smaller takings attempts the City of Charleston has attempted to gain support for in recent years, and it didn’t precipitate the issue at hand. It is imperative that residents, local business owners and their City Council representatives understand what the city is trying to do here and how it will affect their rights as property owners. This year alone, the city has pushed for an expansion of the accommodations cap and for more properties to fall under the costly Board of Architectural Review purview. Homeowners and business owners need to heed the city’s continued attempts to interfere with property owner rights. They could be coming for you next.
To those who called Councilman Aubry Alexander’s alternative ordinance “radical,” we respectfully disagree. What Councilman Alexander presented is a proposal so strong that it passed both houses of the South Carolina General Assembly. The sole issue our legislators were hung up on was compensation — which is the very issue that split our City Council as they considered the issue. So, as a sign of good faith, the compensation issue has been taken off the table to address the real issue: creating a process with guidelines for downzoning property that protects the property owner’s investment.
While most of the time, rezoning applications occur at the request of the property owner or by an interest with a contract to purchase the property — there is the instance where rezonings is requested by the municipality or county themselves. Those rezonings usually involve restricting use of property. This creates a situation where the landowner doesn’t have input. We believe that process should stop, and in its place, add a process where the property owner is consulted and works with the city to create a solution that is beneficial for the city, property owner and community.
What the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors proposes is a process of collaboration. When a change is being considered that would potentially negatively impact the owner, the city should reach out and contact the owner, and discuss the issue at hand. In turn, the property owner should be allowed to explain how the proposed downzoning will affect her and his property and/or business, and the community should have an opportunity to weigh in on what they believe is best for the neighborhood that they call home.
The ideal solution will involve the property owner maintaining profitability of his property while necessary development occurs in context with surrounding properties. Our proposed process allows that to happen through talking, not just taking.
We call on property owners to take more individual responsibility to be good neighbors, and we call on the City of Charleston staff to take the role of mediator — not advocate. We believe sensible land owners and neighbors can come together to find a solution that will truly preserve the charm and livability of Charleston, while also preserving the rights of those who own property here.
Jim Davis is legislative chairman of Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.