Currently, a super-majority vote of 10 of City Council’s 12 members and the mayor is needed to overturn disapprovals by the Planning Commission. The nine-member board appointed by the mayor and members of council is tasked with reviewing concept plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision requests before passing on recommendations to City Council.
Last month, the Planning Commission discussed a request from city officials to reduce the required vote to overturn disapprovals from 75 percent of City Council members present to 60 percent — dropping the requirement from 10 to eight members. The issue returned to City Council Tuesday night, with the Planning Commission offering a compromise of a 65-percent threshold, which would mean nine votes. But before council could make their decision on the newly proposed recommendation from the Planning Commission, Councilman Robert Mitchell wanted to clarify his main concern with the commission’s current level of power.
“They are volunteers. We were elected to do the job that we are sitting here to do for our community,” said Councilman Robert Mitchell. “And in some sense, it seems like they have more power than the City Council has that we are elected here to do.”
Councilman Bill Moody joined Councilman Mitchell in arguing that a 75-percent super-majority isn’t required by neighboring municipal councils hoping to overturn commission recommendations. Speaking for those in his downtown district, Councilman Mike Seekings said the ordinance in place works and the specialized knowledge and focus provided by the Planning Commission should not be undermined. Mayor John Tecklenburg also opposed reducing the required majority to 60 percent from the current super-majority requirement that was put in place by city leaders in the 1930s.
“I do believe that council 100 years ago, or nearly 100 years ago, had no more power than you do, but they had an incredible insight about protecting the built environment of Charleston. And that led to this remarkable historic place that we have,” said Mayor Tecklenburg.
Faced with the Planning Commission’s recommendation of 65 percent, Councilman Keith Waring stood by City Council’s original plan to set the required vote to 60 percent and again discussed the underlying problems that he sees with the current system.
“That rule was put in place almost 100 years ago, in part, to protect the financially privileged. There has never been an African-American businessman to come in front of this body in 20 years who has been able to overturn and be successful in obtaining that 75-percent vote. In the 1930s, that wasn’t even conceived of,” said Waring. “When you change the zoning of a property, it either significantly increases the value of the property or significantly decreases the value of the property. It is embedded in economics. This has a whole lot more to do with than just history.”
Waring added that in his experience, wealthy applicants are the only group with the resources necessary to hire consultants to appeal to local officials and possibly gain the support needed to overturn decisions by the Planning Commission.
“They hire the legal firms. They hire the engineering firms and architectural firms. Historically, this is at the disadvantage of African Americans, women, and minority owners,” said Waring. “To say that this has worked, it has worked well — for a few. But not for the many.”
Councilman Peter Shahid countered that he does not believe that the current ordinance is discriminatory to minority applicants, saying, “I haven’t seen that the government of the city of Charleston has been racially biased in this modern era. It has in the past. I’ve felt it. I felt it as a minority in my own place. I understand it and I understand where Councilman Waring is coming from. ... I know in 2016 and I know in 2006 that this ordinance has worked effectively.”
In what has evolved into a long-running debate over the power of Charleston’s Planning Commission, members of City Council failed to pass a new ordinance Tuesday night that would have reduced the vote needed to override a negative recommendation from the commission.