Because of the way Charleston’s government works, it’s unlikely that an ordinance to shift the balance between the Planning Commission and City Council will pass, and that’s for the best.
Under current rules, it takes three-quarters of City Council — 10 votes — to override a Planning Commission recommendation. And on Monday, the Planning Commission unanimously voted against a measure that would lower that threshold to eight votes.
As such, if and when City Council takes up the ordinance, they’ll need a 10-vote supermajority to pass it. After all, that’s the way the rules work now.
Versions of the proposed ordinance have floated around for months now, so far unsuccessfully. Given the high bar needed for passage, it doesn’t look like that will change in the near future.
And while the rule change in question might seem like a trivial matter, it would be a significant redistribution of power in Charleston government.
The Planning Commission — made up of nine members appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council — takes a first look at any changes to Charleston’s zoning code and zoning maps, which define where and how the city grows and changes.
Sometimes zoning changes are straightforward, but in many cases the ramifications involved are complicated and technical and have wide-ranging effects on the rest of the city and the region.
Ideally, the Planning Commission has the time and expertise to dive into the minutiae of zoning rules in ways that City Council might not. And members are expected to be well-versed in the city’s planning documents, which are intended to serve as the basis for zoning decisions.
In each of its meetings, the Planning Commission makes recommendations to City Council, which can then choose to accept or reject those recommendations. But in deference to the value of the Planning Commission’s work, it takes a supermajority of council to overturn a commission recommendation.
City Councilman Keith Waring, a proponent of the rule change and a long-time former Planning Commission member, has argued that the difficulty of overruling the Planning Commission disproportionately impacts small businesses, particularly those owned by women and members of racial minorities, and individuals who don’t have the same resources as larger developers.
That’s a valid concern. And it’s worth reviewing the city’s rules to ensure that developers with teams of lawyers, architects and engineers are on a level playing field with smaller organizations and individuals, who might not be as well-equipped to navigate city bureaucracy.
Mr. Waring is also correct in pointing out that the existing balance of power has let some misguided projects move forward and has held some worthy efforts back.
But lowering the City Council vote threshold to overturn a Planning Commission decision would almost certainly unleash significant unintended consequences.
The current system appropriately puts planning power in the hands of those with the time and know-how to make the most informed choices possible while leaving a safety valve in the case of a truly egregious misstep.
That’s the way it should be.