Charleston task force discusses proposed delayed demolition law

A bill that would stall the demolition of historic Charleston buildings is moving forward, but members of the Strong Neighborhoods Task Force will wait until next month to decide whether to recommend it to the full city council.

“We have to be comfortable with it so when people start asking us questions . . . we need to know the answer,” said Mary Jean Davis, chairwoman of the task force and city councilwoman. “We’re trying to save buildings rather than seeing them torn down.”

The proposed ordinance would require designated historic buildings be reviewed by the Charleston Historic Landmarks Commission before being demolished.

The commission would then have the authority to delay the demolition permit by 90 days following a public hearing, which must occur within 45 days after the permit application is filed.

Activities that qualify as “demolition” include the removal of: the entire structure; “the roof; 25 percent of the structure; or any portion of the structure’s interior that impacts the street-facing elevation’s exterior features.”

The goal is to buy time to find a solution other than demotion.

If no alternate use is identified, the building may be torn down. The commission also has the authority to bypass the public hearing system and approve the demolition permit administratively if the building in question is too far beyond repair.

“It’s really a cooling off period,” said Joe Deneault, a task force member and West Side councilman.

The bill was first put before the task force in May after several months of work by the city planning department.

Wednesday, the task force reviewed a revised proposal that combined several ideas submitted by the planning department last month. While the task force reached consensus that they supported the revised bill, they wanted to give the it another month of consideration.

The wait will also allow the Historic Landmarks Commission to have a chance to review the bill as a group during that body’s regular meeting.

“It really is frightening to some people,” Davis said, speaking about concern over property rights. “We have to be very educated about what we put forth from this committee.”

“I promise you this is for the good, but there are going to be some people who immediately find fault with it,” she said later in the meeting.

A building would have to be historic, or “significant,” which means it’s either in a historic district or designated as historic on its own. A list of such buildings is available at the city planning office.

“We can’t stay demolition until it’s listed as significant,” said Lori Brannon, a neighborhood planner in the city’s planning department.

In addition to the delayed demolition part of the proposed bill, the law would also tweak how a building or district becomes listed as historically significant in that city council would now have final say in if a building is to receive such a designation.

Because an average person would have the ability to instigate the process for adding a historic building to the city’s historic register, Deneault and fellow task force member Russ Young said they wanted to ensure people couldn’t make frivolous historic review claims or to stop a development the person didn’t like.

The Strong Neighborhoods Task Force is scheduled to meet next on July 16.

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