Charleston is a city defined by two things: its charm and its location as the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry. The beautiful, moss-strewn Live Oak trees, the seemingly endless marshes and creeks, the peninsula itself, surrounded by the embrace of a naturally-deep harbor and flanked by a network of wide, navigable rivers, the environment made Charleston what it is today.
As such, the topic of how the City manages its greatest resource has permeated nearly every aspect of local politics since the inception of Charlestowne in 1670. Today, our municipal government’s relationship with the natural world is managed by a series of citizen-led boards that operate under the umbrella of Charleston’s Department of Planning, Preservation & Sustainability.
WHAT IS THE BZA?
When it comes to project proposals, City Council gets the final say. Projects must proceed successfully through the Planning Commission, a body made up of representatives nominated by members of City Council and whose decisions are reviewed and voted on ultimately by City Council itself. Before a project matriculates up to those bodies, however, arguably where the rubber meets the road in municipal planning, much of the action takes place at the lower levels of city government, most notably at the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).
There are two arms of the BZA, one for zoning and one for site design. Given the Daniel Island Master Plan guides zoning policy on the island, the BZA-Zoning, for Daniel Islanders, is a municipal body that carries little weight. When it comes to the site design arm of the BZA however, Daniel Island residents are rapidly familiarizing themselves with the body, its members and the sway it holds.
And what they have learned is that the decisions the board makes, on issues like the layout of a new development, the allowance of an individual or company to remove a “grand” tree, or the façade of a new structure slated for Daniel Island Town Center, affect everyone in the tightly-knit town of Daniel Island.
Awareness of the importance of the BZA-SD to the quality of life on Daniel Island has grown with the island itself. Daniel Island growth has come in waves, particularly one big wave that began with the rebound of the financial markets a few years ago. That trend has driven Daniel Island developers, leaders, and citizens alike to attend BZA meetings of relevance in greater numbers, as was the case last Wednesday, when the body addressed a trio of agenda items relevant to the community.
THE TREE DEBATE
One of the Daniel Island projects discussed at the meeting was a proposal to create a sizable subdivision slated for what is now a highly-wooded area across Fairbanks Drive from Governors Park. A request by the developer for a variance from the City’s law on “grand trees” to remove four Live Oaks (with trunk diameters of 30 inches) and another special exception to remove a two-foot Water Oak, was approved after the group discussed the health of the trees.
According to a report from ISA Certified Arborist Van Adkins, who performed a survey of the land, four of the five trees in question could and should be removed. After settling the matter of the fifth tree, which the applicant, engineering firm Freeman Milligan successfully argued should be removed, the board voted to approve the request. Just like that, the meeting was off with a buzz.
And while the Fairbanks Drive project was important, Daniel Island’s collective eye, by evidence of a spree of activity seen on various island Facebook pages, was an agenda item request submitted by Daniel Island resident Lisa Pieretti. The BZA-SD was asked by Pieretti to reconsider their April 5 decision to grant a variance to remove 12 trees on Rhoden Island, a 17-acre tract slated for a subdivision of around 100 homes. Pieretti has collected over 400 signatures in support of keeping the trees since addressing the board on the issue at the April 5 BZA meeting.
“As it says up there on the wall ‘Please turn off your cell phones,’” began the City’s head planner Eric Schultz, pointing to a posted sign in the room. “But I’m going to break that rule, because I’m expecting some late-breaking news from an applicant who is possibly in route… and possibly not.”
That applicant was Pieretti, who ultimately did not attend the meeting but informed Schultz via email eight minutes after the session commenced that she was dropping her appeal.
“Her email reads, ‘I have repealed my appeal,’” said Shultz, staring at his phone quixotically. “Ok, so that’s official, the appeal has been withdrawn.”
Four variance applications from across the City and two full hours later, Daniel Island was again, front and center. Island developer Mike White was slated to discuss his request to reconfigure the parking lot at the building he owns at 259 Seven Farms Drive, so as to add four additional parking spaces. The request was deferred from the board’s April meeting to last week’s session. By the time the board took up the matter, what had been a crowd of more than 40 had dwindled down to three, two of whom being White and Jane Baker, who was in attendance to officially represent the Daniel Island Town Association on the matter.
In White’s proposal, he asked to change what is now an “H” parking lot pattern into an “I” pattern.
“This was a building on Daniel Island headed for blight,” said White. “The property owner was an absentee landlord and the lot is in disrepair.”
“I do want to pursue that with the Daniel Island Company, but today the people need parking on Daniel Island,” he continued. “This to me is a common sense, pro-business solution to an ordinance that’s perhaps misapplied on this smaller property.”
Before proceeding, Schultz asked a board member to read for the record a letter from Mary Stuart Sutton of the Daniel Island Architecture Review Board (ARB) stating that her group favored deferring the request to allow White’s team to pursue some alternative solutions to the issue. And while Sutton wasn’t at the meeting, when asked whether there was anyone in the room who wanted to speak against the request, Baker addressed the board.
On behalf of the Daniel Island Town Association (DITA), Baker reported that she and Matt Sloan, in his capacity as chair of the DITA board, recently met with White to offer him, at no charge, a piece of “common area” property in between the parking lot and an adjacent retention pond. The green space could potentially be used for additional parking, added Baker. They asked White to defer so the project could be further vetted, she continued, but he declined.
At last week’s meeting, Baker expressed her concerns about the parking reconfiguration, telling the board that Daniel Island zoning does not allow for what White is requesting.
“We support the Daniel Island ARB’s recommendation that the request be again deferred,” said Baker, before resting her case. “If this is done, the precedent it will set, this will be the beginning of the dominos starting to fall on Daniel Island’s master plan zoning.”
After the exhaustive, three-hour meeting and a lengthy discussion, the board voted to again send White and the project back through the process with yet another deferral. White will be presenting an updated proposal to the body at their next meeting on Wednesday, June 7 at 5 p.m.