Judge: BAR erred in last summer’s Jasper hearing

A judge has ruled in the case of the Beach Co. versus the city’s Board of Architectural Review over the future of the company’s Sergeant Jasper property.

Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review erred when rejecting plans for a new building on the Sergeant Jasper site, but the board itself is constitutional, a judge has ruled.

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson’s Wednesday ruling is the latest wrinkle in the city’s long-running drama over what will become of the Beach Co.’s valuable Broad Street property.

The immediate effect is unclear: The city’s lawyers are reviewing the decision and will make a recommendation soon. Beach Co. CEO John Darby hailed the ruling, which he hopes will lead to the city either accepting the plan the BAR rejected or rekindling talks about another plan.

“I’m hoping the city will put politics aside and meet with us and do what’s best for Charleston and let’s get this behind us,” Darby said. “I think everybody has a Jasper hangover.”

In June, the BAR rejected a plan that included a new building the same height as the existing Sergeant Jasper — 159 feet —but with a larger footprint to accommodate 80 luxury residences, 118,000 square feet of office space and retail space, and a 592-car garage.

The board rejected the plan at the urging of residents and preservation groups, who felt the project was too tall and too dense for its neighborhood, which includes mostly single-family homes. The Beach Co. appealed the BAR’s decision to circuit court, noting that the plan met the city’s zoning.

Darby said Nicholson’s ruling will reverberate beyond the Jasper project because it makes clear the BAR has limited powers to curtail a building’s height from what the city’s zoning allows.

“I think all the property owners in the historic district can breathe a sigh of relief that their property rights are OK,” he said. “This will hopefully change the system forever.... If the judge would have ruled in the city’s favor, you could have just thrown the zoning ordinance out the window.”

But Nicholson’s ruling also is a victory of sorts for the city because it upholds the constitutionality of its Board of Architectural Review. Created in 1931, the BAR currently has the power to review almost every new building, demolition and renovation in the city’s historic peninsula.

City spokesman Jack O’Toole said the city is pleased with that part of the ruling, saying the BAR has proven its worth for more than 80 years.

“Historic preservation and BAR oversight have been critical to the city’s success as being a coveted place to live and work and visit,” he said.

O’Toole called the other part of the ruling “disappointing,” but he stopped short of saying the city will appeal. “It is being reviewed, and a recommendation regarding it will be coming forward very soon,” he said.

Nicholson’s ruling came only after two attempts to mediate the dispute fell apart. The most recent mediation attempt earlier this month ended after four days of private talks — talks that seemed to focus on a plan for a new development with 350 homes, structured parking, office and retail space and a new public park west of Barre Street.

The Beach Co. emptied out the Sergeant Jasper apartment building early last year in hopes of razing the 1950s-era tower and redeveloping the site soon. As the dispute over the redevelopment dragged on, the company said it has lost millions in rental income, not including its design and development fees.

Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation said Wednesday he was pleased the ruling upheld the BAR’s constitutionality but was concerned that it seems to limit the board’s review solely to exterior architectural features — and not height, mass and scale.

“To me, that undermines the BAR in a massive way,” he said. “We need to understand what the ramifications would be.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.