City of Charleston makes family prisoners of historic zoning

Historic preservation is one thing, but this is just absolutely ridiculous.

Right now, the city planning department is trying to assign zoning to a recently annexed piece of land on Colony Drive off Highway 61, near the banks of the Ashley River.

This particular quarter of an acre is a grassy, undeveloped plot with a concrete slab, fireplace and two-story chimney sitting smack in the middle of it. It is all that remains of a clubhouse that was part of a German prisoner of war camp built in the waning days of World War II.

The city's planning staff wants to slap a "historic overlay" zoning protection on the lot to preserve this remnant of the past. The hunting lodge-size fireplace was built, you see, by the very Nazis who used to warm themselves by it. They even signed their work.

The problem with this proposal is that the property is currently owned by Mary Ann Pearlstine Aberman and some of her relatives.

And they're Jewish.

So is the city actually telling a Jewish family they need to maintain an artifact built by the very army that slaughtered millions of their people?

Uh, yeah.

Wrecking ball

The Abermans have done nothing to deserve this.

They bought the property about 20 years ago because it abuts some of their other land. When they discovered the origin of the chimney, well, they understandably didn't want it.

The Abermans actually had a demolition permit to tear down the chimney when the land was in the county.

But some preservationists and representatives of a museum wanted to save the chimney, and the Abermans are not unreasonable. They offered to give it to the group - and even chip in $1,000 toward moving expenses.

Turns out that cost too much, however, and the plans fell by the wayside. And then the property was annexed into the city. And there went the demolition permit.

Some of the neighbors got into the act, worried the family was going to build a road through the property, or develop it. The Abermans have submitted documents to the city saying they won't build a road - they have no plans for the property right now - but it doesn't matter. The chimney stays, for now.

Tim Keane, the city's Director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, says the property was flagged for its historical significance.

"I understand the family would not like this and I see that," Keane says. "But we thought it was a discussion worth having."

The city Planning Commission will debate this, and probably vote, later this month.

This all can be avoided, Keane says, because the ultimate decision rests with city council. They can stop it.

Luckily, Councilman Bill Moody sees the lunacy behind all this.

"If somebody thinks that chimney has some significance, then let them take it," he says. "You want to put a historic overlay on a single piece of property in a neighborhood? I would vote against that."

Put your money ...

The Abermans are no strangers to historic preservation.

Mary Ann's father, in fact, saved the Dock Street Theatre and donated it to the city back when it was the Planter's Hotel. So they've earned their preservation stripes.

Even without that generous deed - even setting aside arguments of property rights - it would be crazy for Charleston to turn around and saddle the Abermans with this.

Mickey Aberman, Mary Ann's son, says that every time he looks at the chimney he thinks about one of his relatives recounting the day the Nazis came in and shot her mother, father and brother while she watched.

It makes him sick.

"I don't think that we ought to have to maintain an artifact that kept Nazi officers comfortable and happy while the rest of the German Army was getting its just desserts," he says.

He's right. That would kind of be like forcing a black family to maintain the owner's lounge of a slave mart in their backyard. It is offensive.

Charleston is serious about historic preservation - it's practically a religious devotion. And that's fine. It has made this city great.

The preservationists even have a point that there is some historic value to this old Nazi chimney. You don't preserve just the good guys' artifacts.

But if the city wants to save this chimney so bad, they should either haul it off or buy the land from the Abermans and take care of it themselves.

The Aberman family isn't looking to sell but they would rather give up land than be forced to preserve a fireplace that used to provide comfort to a bunch of Nazis.

And no one with any sense could blame them.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

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