Preservationists fear proposed changes to historic commission will affect land

Charleston County is beginning the process of hearing proposed changes to its Historic Preservation Ordinance that many fear could weaken land protections.
Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 4:50 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 12, 2023 at 6:57 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston County is beginning the process of hearing proposed changes to its Historic Preservation Ordinance that many fear could weaken the protections against development on vulnerable land.

Two of the proposed changes include taking away the ability of the historic commission to nominate properties and districts for designation and taking subdivision regulation away from the historic commission. The county cites that in South Carolina law, subdivision regulation is under the planning commission.

But preservation advocates say the ability to take the surrounding makeup and significance of historic communities into account when planning subdivisions is essential.

Justin Schwebler is the Properties Manager for Historic Charleston Foundation and says he worries that these changes will have impacts, especially on historic African American Communities when it comes to opposing development.

“The historic preservation commission has been able to make some really strong decisions to help protect these communities that have been identified and recognized as historic districts. And so the you know, the language of the ordinance is, is good and it’s protecting the communities in a meaningful way. And it’s disappointing to see that there’s been kind of a push to, to undo the protection so that ordinance provides for these really sensitive communities,” Schwebler says.

The public hearing on Monday did not involve a vote or decision but was a forum to hear the proposed changes and hear from the public. The agenda posted more than 40 letters from people who wrote in ahead of the hearing, already opposing the changes.

Schwebler says when the Historic Preservation Ordinance was adopted in 2016, he was impressed by the voice it gave to the communities and the empowerment it gave to continuing historic land use traditions.

“It provides protection and empowers the historic preservation commission to make decisions on the appropriateness of developments based on land use issues. And so the kind of current proposed amendments would strip the historic preservation commission at the county from being able to make decisions based off land use characteristics for different applications,” Schwebler says.

The Charleston County Historic Preservation Commission is made up of nine members appointed by the county council. The Commission has final decision-making authority on Certificates of Historic Appropriateness. According to the county, the Historic Preservation Commission acts in a review and recommending capacity to County Council for Designations of Historic Property and may also conduct first review and evaluation of all proposed nominations for the National Register of Historic Properties.

“They would essentially become sort of a tacit board of Architectural Review. But again, the significance of these communities is their land use patterns, their cultural practices, and their history tie to the settlement patterns of the land itself,” Schwebler says.

Many of the letters against the changes come from residents in the Ten Mile and Phillips communities. Schwebler hopes their voices are heard and believes the power of the commission is a positive thing.

“The commission is imbued with that, you know, we don’t even have that for the board of Architectural Review in downtown Charleston. So it was really kind of cutting edge for when it was implemented and really is important to maintain for Charleston County, especially for these communities,” Schwebler says.

The public hearing will be followed by more readings through the zoning and planning boards as well as the county council.