Keep planning process strong

An overflow crowd attended a Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 18 to consider the Beach Company plan to redevelop the Sergeant Jasper apartment building site. The commission meetings give interested citizens a chance to voice their opinions. Wade Spees/Staff February 18, 2015

Building projects in Charleston go through some rigorous safeguards in order to ensure they are good for the city and the neighborhood. That’s as it should be.

But at its meeting today, Charleston City Council will vote on whether to dilute that process significantly. That would be a mistake.

The vote would diminish the ability of the Planning Commission to steer development in the right direction by making it easier for City Council to reject the commissioners’ recommendations.

And while Councilman Keith Waring is correct that the ordinance sets a very high bar for council to meet, the motion would drop it too low.

The Planning Commission is made up of people appointed by City Council because of their experience with or knowledge of planning issues and ordinances. Mr. Waring himself served as a commissioner for more than 17 years and says he has high regard for its members. Their job is to make informed recommendations to City Council, which makes the final decisions.

In order for council to decide against the commission, three-fourths of its membership — 10 members — must vote to do so.

The proposal to be considered at its meeting today would reduce that number to 60 percent of only those members present.

Councilman Bill Moody, who is sponsoring the recommendation along with Councilman Waring, says it’s simply too high a bar to require 10 votes.

“It’s almost disrespectful,” he says, for an elected body to have such constraints to overrule an appointed body. Even Congress doesn’t need that many votes to override a presidential veto, he notes.

However, the recommended change would go too far to weaken the authority of a commission selected specifically for the job of assessing projects.

It also would place more authority in the hands of Charleston City Council, whose members are charged with broader responsibilities. They benefit from commissioners’ analyses.

Mayor John Tecklenburg said three council members expressed interest in changing the ordinance, so it needed to be on the agenda for discussion.

He feels strongly that overriding the Planning Commission should require a super-majority.

He is open to hearing ideas about what that majority should be.

The present ordinance hasn’t posed problems for Mr. Moody or Mr. Waring. They contend that it just doesn’t seem right from a governance standpoint.

Councilman Mike Seekings is adamantly opposed to the change, as are local historic preservationists. The move could diminish the heft of the people’s voice — neighbors, for example — in favor of developers’. The Planning Commission typically provides the forum for the public review of projects.

The change could open the door to decisions becoming more politically driven. Council members are elected, and might feel beholden to supporters who are trying to win approval for particular projects.

Because planning commissioners are appointed, they do not have that vulnerability.

Further, two recent votes indicate that City Council can and does refuse Planning Commission’s recommendations on occasion even under the present ordinance.

One was when council voted 11-1 to reject the Planning Commission’s recommendation for eliminating the arcane and outdated 3X height limit, which governs the Sergeant Jasper property.

The other was to allow additional height for a proposed development at Spring and King streets, although both the Planning Commission and the city’s planning department recommended against it.

Charleston is one-of-a-kind, and a prime location for development. City government must make sure that growth doesn’t harm the quality of life here. Setting the bar high is one way to maintain high standards.

The Planning Commission is a key part of that effort and needs the authority to continue to do its important work.