Those paying close attention to Charleston’s recent municipal elections could sense voters are concerned about the city’s rapid growth and development, a good type of problem to be sure, but a problem nonetheless. That’s why we’re puzzled that City Council seems bent on making it as easy as possible to override recommendations from its Planning Commission.
Council members recently voted 10-3 to rewrite the rules to allow a simple majority of council to override a Planning Commission recommendation. It is significant that two of those opposed were the city’s leading mayoral candidates, Mayor John Tecklenburg and Councilman and runner-up Mike Seekings.
A final vote on the change could take place as early as Tuesday, at one of the last City Council meetings before four new council members are sworn in next month.
Similar efforts thankfully have fallen short over the past few years. So what’s the rush now?
Here’s how the process works: The Planning Commission’s nine members take a first look at proposed changes to Charleston’s zoning code and zoning maps, which shape how the city grows. Its members, appointed by the mayor and City Council, reflect a cross section of the city and are expected to look at changes not through a political lens but through the lens of the city’s comprehensive planning efforts. Their only power is to make recommendations to City Council, which always has the final say. If City Council wants to overrule the commission, it currently needs three-fourths of its members (10 votes) to do so. That reflects the value of the commission’s work.
Some, including the measure’s sponsor Councilman Keith Waring, argue the supermajority requirement is a vestige of the city’s Jim Crow era and the change would benefit the little guy. But Waring also is a former chair of the the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, and it’s also clear the change would make it easier for residents and developers to get rezoning that most members of commission think is a bad idea. The volunteer board does the largely thankless work of scrutinizing these changes.
We’re not the only ones concerned. Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation, sent out an alert because the foundation feels this change would politicize the city’s planning process. There’s no good time for that, but it’s especially bad timing now, as the city struggles to keep its planning policies current amid one of its biggest building booms.
In general, we’re wary of supermajority requirements and cite the state’s controversial Heritage Act as an example where the requirement seems to be in place to shut down debate. But in this case, the requirement acknowledges the fact that we want zoning decisions to be made based on the long-term vision our leaders have set for our city’s development, rather than politics. Overruling those decisions is akin to overriding a veto, which requires a supermajority.
This debate is somewhat obscure: Cases where a majority of City Council has voted to overrule the Planning Commission but failed because it came up a few votes shy of 10 are rare.
And there may be middle ground here. Instead of requiring a three-fourths supermajority (at least 10 votes) to override, the city could change its rule to require a two-thirds majority of those present and voting, a change that still would recognize the Planning Commission’s work. But if the city really has a systemic issue in its planning and zoning that adversely impacts minorities and women, then the conversation should be broadened well beyond this debate over how advice from its Planning Commission should be treated.