Charleston made history when it created a Board of Architectural Review in 1931 to preserve the architectural character of its old city, and more than 2,300 cities and towns have since followed suit.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Charleston's most significant rewrite ever of that 1931 law is stirring plenty of anxiety over whether the city will get it right.
That anxiety was on display for more than three hours Thursday night in Burke High School's auditorium, as the Charleston Planning Commission considered the proposed rewrite, including a major overhaul to the peninsula's height limits.
The commission ultimately voted 8-1 to recommend the changes to City Council, which will take up the matter and hold its own public hearing on June 20.
The vote was a blow to the city's two main preservation groups, which had worked closely with the city on rethinking its architectural review processes. Both groups urged the Planning Commission to defer action for more study, particularly on language that would reduce the city's two boards of architectural review's ability to lower the heights of proposed buildings.
They were joined by Nancy Tinker of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who also called for more community input. The city currently has two boards of architectural review, one for larger projects and another for smaller ones, and she said the new language might increase the chance for lawsuits over the boards' decisions.
But the limitations on the boards were welcomed by John Darby, CEO of The Beach Company, which previously sued the city successfully after the BAR voted against a tall replacement for its Sergeant Jasper Apartment building. Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson ruled the board erred because the proposed project fit the city's height rules, and even though a settlement deal later set that ruling aside, it has hung like a fog over the board's actions since.
Darby said the judge got it right and that City Council — not the BAR — should set height limits. "The simple thing is to take the BAR out of the zoning business," he said.
The proposed changes would regulate building height by shifting the rules from limits on feet to limits on the number of building floors — and it will give the BAR authority to allow more height if members feel it would make for a better building.
Marina Khoury of DPZ Associates, the city's consultant on the rewrite, said this change and others are designed to encourage better, more varied architecture. The changes also include a detailed map placing properties in about 10 different height zones, many of which are slightly lower than what's allowed now.
Still, Preservation Society Executive Director Kristopher King said his members are extremely concerned about how limiting the BAR's ability to reduce height could irreparably harm its ability to do its job. He said the city's architecture is too varied and the board needs to have more flexibility to consider the context of specific buildings.
Chris Cody of the Historic Charleston Foundation said while Nicholson's order found the BAR at fault in the earlier Jasper case, the city could amend its ordinance to clarify the board has authority to regulate height. He noted several other cities have done so.
Meanwhile, many of the other proposed revisions triggered little, if any, debate, including a set of 20 architectural principles about what new buildings must, should, and may do and clearer definitions of demolition, demolition by neglect, accessory structures and other topics often before the board. About 150 attended and almost 30 spoke.
Beforehand, the city placed about 2,900 purple paper signs around the peninsula to provide public notice and sent 11,043 mailers to property owners.
Architect Richard Gowe said the proposed BAR changes may address architecture, but they don't address the city's bigger problem of affordability. "A lot of what I see in this is only going to make buildings more expensive," he said.
Mayor John Tecklenburg also encouraged the commission to vote for the changes, but he noted that City Council won't take a final vote on the changes until July at the earliest and that the city is committed to reviewing the changes in depth six months after they take effect.
"I do want to make it clear to everyone that even with your passage of this matter, this process will go on for some time," he said. "This process is going to go on for the rest of this calendar year for us to get this right, which I'm convinced we can do."