Charleston’s technical review process lacks transparency

Charleston’s technical review process lacks transparency
April 23 17:58 2018 Print This Article

The key permitting decisions in the City of Charleston concerning drainage and traffic are handled by the Technical Review Committee (TRC). According to the City’s official website, “The TRC exists to help people working in Charleston get development projects designed and permitted in the most efficient manner possible. Like all cities, Charleston has a set of laws established by City Council that are intended to protect the health and safety of citizens.” The TRC consists of City staff personnel and sometimes outside agencies like the SCDOT or Army Corps of Engineers. The meetings are held on Thursday mornings in an enclosed space with only enough room for city staff and developers, which makes it difficult for the public to listen to the proceedings. No detailed minutes are published to allow the public or City Council to know about concerns were raised by city staff regarding drainage and traffic.

By contrast, the city’s Design Review Board (DRB) and Planning Commission meetings are held in a large meeting room, with seating for more than 100 people and standing room. The public and members of City Council may hear concerns about development plans and the developer’s response to them. There is also a public comment period for each project on the agenda. However, each body is limited in what it may review. The DRB may only address architecture, landscaping, signage, lighting and other aesthetic concerns over the development plans. The Planning Commission may only evaluate whether the development plans comply with existing zoning ordinances. Neither body may address the vital areas of drainage and traffic, which are the primary concerns of the citizens.

A recent Planning Commission hearing on the 205-home Oakville Plantation development on Johns Island brought the flaws in the permitting process into focus. The 201-acre tract sits along a flood plain. Residents in the nearby Stono Pointe subdivision were concerned that the Oakville homes would be elevated with fill material and send stormwater runoff onto their properties. The problem is magnified by removing trees and filling wetlands, which currently absorb and store stormwater. The Planning Commission can’t address that issue, and the TRC had already signed off on it. Charleston Public Services Director Laura Cabiness, who sits on the TRC, told the Post and Courier that the Oakville developer presented “very limited information” on its drainage plans to the TRC. The Planning Commission recommended approval the Oakville project by a 4-3 margin.

Considering the problems with drainage and traffic in all parts of the city, the TRC meetings should be moved to the large meeting room at the 2 George Street office complex Downtown and should be held in the evening so that it is open to a greater segment of the public. Greater transparency during the permitting process will allow residents to provide meaningful feedback to City Council. The burden should be placed on developers to ensure that the new developments will not cause existing properties to flood.