The Sergeant Jasper redevelopment saga revealed an alarming chink in the armor protecting Charleston’s historic districts. For the first time in its more than 80-year existence, the BAR’s very survival was considered in jeopardy.
After Beach Company officials sued the city, saying the BAR acted without authority when it denied their development proposal, Judge J.C. Nicholson indicated that indeed the city’s BAR ordinance was not clear about its authority in considering applications for new buildings.
Anxious city officials and preservationists decried the judge’s perspective, pointing out that the BAR has been an effective tool for preserving the city’s historic character and guiding new construction.
Judge Nicholson, who hasn’t yet filed his decision, later said he did not intend to gut the BAR. But the city wisely has wasted no time beginning to shore up the ordinance and clarify the BAR’s powers.
On Tuesday, Charleston City Council, by a vote of 10-1 (Councilman Bill Moody cast the sole “no” vote, and Councilmen Dean Reigel and Rodney Williams had already been excused), gave first reading to the city’s recommended starting point.
Hopefully, Judge Nicholson will see that the city is addressing the ordinance’s shortcomings in a reasonable, thorough way, and will change his ruling to the benefit of the BAR, and the city.
The gist of the ordinance is to clarify the BAR’s authority pertaining to its review of height, scale and mass of new construction. The aim is to give the BAR the ability to ensure a new building is compatible and proportionate to structures immediately surrounding it.
As the ordinance is fine-tuned, city staff and council members should make sure that the BAR’s authority is fortified, not weakened, so that it can continue to handle its very important tasks.
For example, the BAR has for years considered the height, scale and mass of proposed new construction as well as the structure’s design, character, appropriateness and relation to its surroundings.
The Beach Company’s lawsuit questions whether the BAR can legally consider height as one of the features that makes a building compatible with its surroundings or not. The suit contends that questions of height are the purview of the zoning process.
The city has a compelling argument that a building’s height is key to its compatibility — or lack of it — and that the BAR should indeed have the authority to consider it.
The new ordinance rightly directs the BAR to take into account the property’s zoning, as it also examines its adherence to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, Preservation Plan and Downtown Plan.
The BAR’s custom is in line with the proposed ordinance changes. And through the years, the BAR has prevented buildings that are inappropriate for the site from being constructed.
As Charleston’s popularity grows, the pressure to develop the peninsula will intensify, and the BAR’s steady hand will be all the more necessary.
The long Sergeant Jasper dispute pitting neighbors and preservationists against the Beach Company has been difficult.
But it should not detract from the work that the BAR does in conserving historic Charleston’s beauty, charm and authenticity — all of which are valuable to residents and developers alike.
Its preservation is essential.