Sergeant Jasper zoning-overlay debate spotlights Charleston's growing pains

The Beach Company

A zoning overlay aimed at providing flexibility to a proposed 14-story building passed the Charleston City Council by a healthy majority earlier this month.

The new rules, with specific zoning for the Sergeant Jasper project, include special “gateway” zoning in key areas. Those include zones at Clements Ferry Road and Interstate 526, at a portion on the southern edge of the WestEdge Development along Septima Clark Parkway, at an area near the Bree Street Lofts and Bristol condominiums, and the intersection near the Sergeant Jasper building.

Earlier, the city’s planning commission voted not to recommend approval of the “Gateway Overlay” zoning option, citing among other issues a lack of requirements for affordable housing. According to District 7 Council Member Perry "Keith" Waring, the zoning change passed July 19 was an amended version that included provisions for increased affordable housing. Waring said The Beach Company agreed to affordable housing in accordance with U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines.

“That’s why you have these public processes -- what one group doesn’t think of, the other one does,” Waring told Palmetto Business Daily.

Waring said the 10-3 vote in favor of the new zoning specifically for Sergeant Jasper was the minimum needed to override the commission’s initial vote to not recommend the changes.The planning changes come only weeks after a back-and-forth between the city and The Beach Company, which won a major court battle earlier this year in relation to its proposed Sergeant Jasper development.

The new zoning allows the project to be switched from primarily commercial to a primarily residential project.

“In all our negotiations with the communities and everybody, everybody said we would prefer to have residential on that site and not this office building -- this office building is going to be much more impactful on the neighborhood,” District 11 Council Member William "Bill" Moody Jr. told Palmetto Business Daily. “The zoning that was on that property, it allowed some apartments, but not the density that The Beach Company was wanting.”

City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey told the Charleston Region Business Journal that the new overlay zoning would allow Sergeant Jasper to be planned with up to 324 residential units.

Critics of the zoning overlays have said the comprehensive changes -- which still require additional votes by the council before they are fully approved -- would open the door for overdevelopment. In an editorial run by the Post and Courier, Charlestown Neighborhood Association Committee Chairman J. Randolph Pelzer said the justification for the change could apply to numerous other neighborhoods that serve as a two-lane “gateway” to a historic neighborhood.

“Do West Ashley residents really want their council members to support zoning changes allowing complexes similar to the Boulevard or the proposed Jasper at the entry to their neighborhoods?” Pelzer wrote.

But both Waring and Moody, whose districts include portions of the city west of Ashley, said the opposition has less to do with policy and more to do with opposition to the Sergeant Jasper project.

“Neighborhood associations are fighting because they don’t (want) anything on that property, but that’s not what The Beach Company is going to do,” Moody said. “Whether (gateway zoning) is going to impact other areas of the community, that’s just a smokescreen.”

Waring said overlay districts have been used by the city in the past, specifically to limit development. Waring pointed to the recent Mason Preparatory School expansion project as an example. The school looked to add buildings to its acreage, but was limited by residential zoning. Waring said different zoning categories that allow what a developer is looking for, such as mixed-use or MU zoning, allow for a lot more development than a neighborhood might be in favor of.

“An individual zoning category would allow, believe it or not, too much latitude.” Waring said. “So you come up with an overlay for certain areas of the city that may have similar traits.”

Moody said the criticism of the overlay and Jasper also ignores the challenges Charleston faces in its growth. As many as 50 new residents per day are moving into the area for opportunities, Moody and others said.

Moody said the question for city officials is whether to expand outward to meet that demand -- which places more strain on the roads as residents commute -- or engage in “infill” projects, such as Sergeant Jasper, that take existing lots and increase the density of homes and businesses. Moody said West Ashley might appreciate similar projects to avoid the costs to the taxpayers of maintaining a sprawling infrastructure.

“I don’t know that I buy their criticism,” Moody said. “There’s never been a perfect law that somebody may not abuse, so I understand what they’re saying, but I don’t necessarily agree.”

Council members don’t expect these actions over the proposed development -- and future density-building projects in the city -- will abate any time soon. Though a court overturned the Board of Architectural Review’s initial rejection of the project, the approval process still requires two more steps.

Waring said he welcomes the engagement.

“One thing this process has done is give an appreciation for the many different avenues of public input, and it has been effective,” Waring said. “I think they say the best compromise is the one where both parties walk away a little bit dissatisfied -- I think that certainly applies with this one."

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