Jasper zoning war may intensify City might limit buildings to 55 feet

The Beach Co.’s new plan for redeveloping its Sergeant Jasper property west of Colonial Lake could run into trouble if an effort succeeds to lower the height limit on the site.

The property named to honor one of Charleston’s leading Revolutionary War heroes is now enmeshed in an epic battle over its future.

While Sergeant Jasper and his fellow patriots fought the British with cannonballs and gunpowder in 1776, this year’s fight over his namesake property is being waged with zoning codes, architectural plans and lawyers.

The latest volley is the possibility that the city of Charleston will rezone the 4-acre Sergeant Jasper property to limit the height of new buildings there to 55 feet — just a fraction of what currently could be built.

The zoning change — if approved later this spring and summer — ultimately could result in a protracted legal fight that will decide the fate of the Beach Co.’s site just west of Moultrie Playground and Colonial Lake.

Charleston Planning commissioners set the downzoning in motion in March and voted again this month to consider the change formally next month.

There currently is no draft of the proposed change, and it is unclear what the Planning Commission might recommend — and how many other properties could be affected, said Tim Keane, director of the city’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.

“Everybody is a little fuzzy on things,” Keane said, adding that while he expects the city staff will make a recommendation, “I have no idea what it will be.”

The potential zoning change is just the latest stir of the pot at the Sergeant Jasper site. Earlier this year, public outcry erupted over the company’s plans to raze its current 14-story apartment building and replace it with a series of four-story and seven-story buildings that would house 454 residences, a 24-hour grocery store and a parking garage.

The company pulled that plan in March and changed course in a dramatic fashion. Last week, it unveiled a new concept for a 20-story building with 80 luxury residences, as well as an eight-story office building and a shorter residential tower and parking garage.

That plan could be built within the property’s current 3X height zoning — a classification that allows 3 feet in height for every foot the building is set back from the street.

The only city approval needed for the new high-rise would be approval of its design by the city’s Board of Architectural Review. The company has filed a preliminary application with the city, but there’s been no date set for a board review.

And that review might come after the Planning Commission votes May 18 on whether to lower the height to 55 feet.

If approved, that would scuttle the Beach Co.’s plans to build a structure that is expected to be more than 200 feet tall — far taller than the 150-foot-tall Sergeant Jasper building and even taller than the height of its star-shaped light on top, which is 190 feet.

Instead, any new building there would be limited to 55 feet — about the same height as the Exchange Building and the Charleston County Office Building on Meeting Street, both of which are 53 feet tall at their highest points.

Charleston attorney Trenholm Walker, who has presented preservation groups in the past but currently is working on the Jasper project for the Beach Co., said the company is alarmed about the possible change and doesn’t want to see it pass.

“The train is on the tracks, and this is going to be a derailment midway,” Walker said. “It may be we’re going to spend far too much time on what could be a defining controversy over legal issues rather than design or planning issues.”

But Jay Williams of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association said the Planning Commission should be commended for addressing an antiquated height limit that the city’s own comprehensive plans called for changing.

He called the original Sergeant Jasper building — one of the city’s few high-rises built before its 1978 height ordinance — an “anomaly,” adding, “Just because we made that mistake once shouldn’t mean we should repeat that mistake.”

Frank Rupp, president of the Harleston Village Neighborhood Association, said his neighborhood also thinks a 55-foot limit would be more compatible with the neighborhood. He said he expects to voice support for that change on May 18.

But businesses groups, including the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, also will watch what happens as part of their larger concerns of having rules changed on developers in the middle of the game.

“You just can’t keep moving the line,” chamber vice president Mary Graham said. “We’re planning on becoming more vocal on this issue in terms of the Beach Company. It’s not just about being able to build anything. We don’t believe in that. At the same time, from a business perspective, you can’t change regulations midstream and expect there not to be an impact.”

Still, preservation groups have called the city’s 3X height limit a dinosaur, and Mayor Joe Riley also has called it a “relic.”

Still, the Beach Co.’s Sergeant Jasper property avoided City Council’s 2006 vote to remove 3X from the zoning map in West Ashley, James Island, Johns Island, the Cainhoy peninsula and the Charleston peninsula above Mount Pleasant Street.

Meanwhile, the Beach Co. is continuing to move forward with its revised plans for the Jasper site, vice president Dan Doyle said, adding, “We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and energy on this and our goal is to continue the process.”

The current high-rise is being stripped of its lead paint and asbestos in preparation for demolition, which was expected to occur relatively soon but now could be put on hold as the city considers the zoning change.

“We’ll continue to evaluate that as things move forward,” Doyle said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.