In response to the destruction of the Limehouse Produce Shed in West Ashley in 2013, the Charleston County Planning Commission established the Historic Preservation Committee to implement core Cultural Resources Element goals and strategies from the Comprehensive Plan, including the protection of Historic African-American Communities from development that is not consistent with their character or historic culture.
The County’s Historic Resources Survey was completed in 2016 (identifying, among several historic resources, the Ten Mile community) and, in 2018, the County adopted the Historic Preservation ordinance. The ordinance established the Historic Preservation Commission to oversee the designation of historic properties and districts, and created a process by which proposed changes to historic properties and districts can be reviewed by the Commission. If the proposed changes meet certain criteria, the Commission may issue certificates of historic appropriateness.
Following County staff’s recommendation at a community meeting hosted back in the Spring of 2021, the Ten Mile community organized a petition drive and quickly secured signatures from more than half of its residents to be designated as Historic District under Charleston County’s Historic Preservation Ordinance. The designation was approved by Charleston County Council in 2022.
The Historic Preservation Commission applied the ordinance as drafted but these efforts were soon opposed, not only by inconvenienced developers, including those who sought to inundate the historic Ten Mile Community with subdivisions, but also by unelected administrative staff who encouraged the Historic Preservation Commission to ignore the express language of the ordinance.
Despite the ordinance requiring certificates of historic appropriateness for “Subdivision Plats” and despite the express obligation to determine whether a proposal was consistent with “existing lots, densities, spacing of homes, lot sizes and shapes,” the staff recommended that the Commission not base its decisions on the governing law. Fortunately, the Commission followed the letter of the ordinance and denied developers certificates of historic appropriateness. Unfortunately, there were other troubling decisions by local government commissions regarding proposed development in the historic Ten Mile community and you may read more on the pending litigation here.
After the Historic Preservation Commission ignored county staff and applied the ordinance as written, staff proceeded to draft amendments to the ordinance which excise subdivisions from the purview of the Commission, change the criteria for review of appropriateness, add additional requirements to obtaining a historic district designation and even change the definition of what constitutes a historic district. The amendments also fail to protect existing historic districts because the review criteria is so drastically changed that there may be virtually no protections for them unless and until they seek, yet again, to have additional protections recognized by County Council.
The staff has claimed that the amendments are necessary to remedy a conflict with state law, but that issue was never recognized when the ordinance was first passed or on the subsequent occasions when it has been amended. Other than quoting the statute in question, there has been no attempt to demonstrate how the ordinance does not comply with other state law.
Along with Historic Charleston Foundation and Preservation Society of Charleston, SCELP has pushed back against the proposed amendments from the moment they were made public in August of this year, by explaining how the ordinance has always complied with state law.
In addition to the actual amendments, the process by which these amendments have been placed before County Council is troubling. Even though the Historic Preservation Ordinance was created after much study and public engagement for the specific purpose of filling a gap in the County Planning Department’s skillset, County staff drafted the proposed amendments without seeking any participation or feedback from the settlement communities or the preservation experts and while being threatened and eventually sued by developers who were denied historic appropriateness certificates. Not even the Planning Commission was given the opportunity to comment on the draft before recommending approval of the companion tweaks to the Zoning Ordinance.
At the public hearing before County Council on September 12, 2023, representatives from several settlement communities spoke up against the adoption of the proposed amendments. Above all, they demanded not to be ignored on a matter critical to the future survival of their communities.
SCELP and other advocates also insisted that while we are willing to work with the County to improve the ordinance, we cannot do so at the expense of existing and long-needed protections. Instead, we, and others asked that the process be restarted so that the Commission, preservation experts, the communities and other stakeholders may all be engaged and contribute to the drafting of amendments that truly advance the Comprehensive Plan goals, building on, rather than jettisoning, the good work done by the HPC and many others over the last several years.
The proposed amendments were voted down 5-3 on second reading on October 24. But we believe the effort to adopt the amendments will continue.
We will persist in monitoring and assisting with this process until the ordinance is amended so that the protection of cultural and environmental resources in Charleston County is strengthened, rather than stripped away, and the Historic Preservation Commission is fully empowered to properly carry out its critical mission.
In the meantime, developers have filed several lawsuits against the County, including a broad and direct attack on the validity of the Ordinance as a whole. We will continue fighting them on behalf of the Ten Mile Neighborhood Association.
Stay tuned for updates in the upcoming weeks and please consider joining the fight!