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Editorial: Online public hearings a bad idea; let's find a better way

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Joe Riley Stadium

Holding a public hearing in the Joe Riley Stadium, with participants remaining at least six feet apart, would be a better idea than trying to do it online. Staff/file

Last month, Charleston City Council was asked to approve an emergency ordinance to allow its planning and zoning boards to hold online meetings, including public hearings, and council members said no. They’re being asked again Monday, and their answer shouldn’t change.

We hope it won’t come to that. City planners and lawyers have been scrambling for more than a week to figure out a peculiar problem posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and they still have a card up their sleeve.

The problem is this: State law says planning commissions have a limited time to rule on a requested zoning change. If it doesn’t act in time, the law says, “it is deemed to have approved the change or departure.” There were several such changes pending before the pandemic shut down city offices and led to social distancing rules that make typical planning and zoning meetings impossible to hold. And none have been held. At least not yet.

The city has asked Gov. Henry McMaster to set aside these deadlines, but his exceptional new emergency powers still don’t include the ability to change state law (only regulations).

So the city has asked the S.C. Department of Commerce to rule whether such hearings are “essential business,” a process outlined in Gov. McMaster’s Tuesday order shutting down parts of the state to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the answer is no, then City Council need not worry. But if the answer is yes, then it still faces a ticking clock, and the proposed remote-hearing ordinance will go before council at 5:30 p.m. Monday. It’s also a remote meeting: Dial 1-929-205-6099 (Access Code: 530 098 477) to join. As a sign of how imperfect these sorts of meetings are, the deadline for submitting public comments online expired at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

The Preservation Society of Charleston and the Coastal Conservation League already have encouraged their members to urge City Council not to proceed.

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The ordinance would allow virtual meetings until June 5 of public review boards, including City Council, the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals-Zoning and Site Design, the Design Review Board, and the Board of Architectural Review-Large and Small. Kristopher King of the Preservation Society rightly notes a big concern is that the ordinance provides few specifics on how virtual attendance will be facilitated.

“The Preservation Society is greatly concerned that allowing complex development decisions to be made virtually will preclude meaningful public participation and provide a window for developers to initiate major projects, exploiting a diminished public process,” Mr. King said.

This issue affects other cities and towns, but they haven’t made as much noise about it. That’s perhaps because few face the same kind of development pressures as Charleston. Among the rezoning requests at stake in this matter is a massive planned unit development on Laurel Island that would allow for more than 10 million square feet of retail, office and residential construction. All this on a 191-acre former landfill just east of Romney Street.

Anyone who has participated in Zoom meetings or conference calls can appreciate how imperfect a substitute they are. They’re difficult to run, and even the decision makers can have a tough time being heard, much less members of the public.

If the city has no better alternative, we would prefer to see these meetings held in a large venue such as Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, with board members, staff and the public maintaining at least 6 feet of separation from one another.

Perhaps the Legislature should explore whether this is something it can address Wednesday. If not, the city of Charleston — and other cities subject to the same state law — must find the least bad way to muddle through without resorting to online public hearings.

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