Downtown Charleston residents are probably a tad miffed these days, and it’s hard to blame ‘em.
Last year, they begged the city to forcibly take the Sergeant Jasper property because they opposed plans to replace the ugly old high-rise with a new, more attractive one.
Instead, they wanted Charleston to declare eminent domain and turn the site into a park.
City officials refused, citing the Beach Company's private property and zoning rights. Which were fair points.
But now City Council has given the mayor authority to declare eminent domain on a piece of West Ashley property — all because some neighbors didn’t like the owner's plan for a fancy gas station.
One of the ideas floated by council was, yes, turning the property into a park.
See the double standard? You can bet downtown residents do.
“We have used eminent domain as a means of zoning instead of sitting down with the property owners and working it out,” says Councilman Mike Seekings. “And it’s just because we didn’t like the plan for the property.”
As Seekings correctly notes, this is a dangerous precedent.
The government’s power to confiscate private property for the public good should be used sparingly, and in Charleston it has been.
The city didn’t use eminent domain to build Waterfront Park. But the threat was always there, giving Charleston a strong negotiating position.
That is exactly what’s going on here. Most City Council members who voted to give the mayor eminent domain powers in this instance — it passed on a narrow 7-5 vote — say he just needed that option to bargain with the property owners.
None of them expect it to get that far.
But the city’s sudden willingness to shape development with its significant bullying powers equally comes with political ramifications. Not only is it the opposite of city policy for downtown, the current path comes as Charleston is trying to lure investors to West Ashley as part of its revitalization plan, Seekings notes.
Will anyone really want to do business knowing that if a neighbor complains about their plans the city might shut them down and take their land?
Sure, Charleston is talking about using part of the property to fix the dangerous — and ludicrous — merger of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road. But Seekings says the city could do that without the land. It's just an excuse.
The truth is, part of the reason the city is doing this is because it can. An old Piggly Wiggly in West Ashley won't set the city back as much as that Sergeant Jasper property would have. Remember, even with eminent domain the city has to pay fair market value. That's the difference here.
But the double standard is going to sow seeds of discontent among downtown residents.
Look at it from their perspective: The city won’t limit cruise ships, horse carriages or hotels to their satisfaction, but will take a tough stand to stop a gas station in a neighborhood with three strip malls, two grocery stores and a handful of restaurants?
New town center?
For a long time, City Hall has been accused of ignoring West Ashley.
Downtown got all the attention, planning and money for decades as city officials transformed Charleston into one of the most attractive tourist towns in the world. Often that came against the wishes of many vocal downtown residents.
But things have obviously changed. Council has refused to adopt Mayor John Tecklenburg’s proposed limits on downtown hotels three times, yet is leaning toward development moratoriums — at least temporarily — in parts of West Ashley and James Island.
Of course, this has everything to do with the fact that the ruling majority of City Council is now located firmly West of the Ashley. Which is where most of Charleston's population lives.
Honestly, the council is acting responsibly with those moratoriums. The last thing James Island needs right now is more apartments, or traffic. And it would be foolish to build more homes in the Church Creek area of West Ashley until the city can figure out how — or if — it can stop the chronic flooding there.
The only problem here is consistency. Downtown residents believe they deserve a time out from development, too. But City Council members have been hesitant to tap the brakes.
They contend the free market will eventually curtail the proliferation of downtown hotels, which is the conservative position. That is at least similar to the council's defense of the Beach Company's property rights at Sergeant Jasper.
All that makes sense. But it also makes the city look worse for invoking the nuclear option over a gas station.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.