Access to form-based code documents concerns some Beaufort residents

emoody@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 24, 2013 

Beaufort's Van Irwin is shown here Friday morning behind his home on Verdier Bluff Road. Irwin and other Beaufort residents are concerned the city won't make public its zoning drafts as it shifts toward form-based code.

SARAH WELLIVER/STAFF PHOTO

Van Irwin has spent years fighting to keep commercial enterprises out of his Verdier Bluff neighborhood.

So he was alarmed by his first glimpse of a map that indicated zoning around his home might change as the city of Beaufort adopts form-based code. The map showed half of his neighborhood rezoned to allow businesses.

Irwin told his neighbors what he discovered, and they took their concerns to a city committee helping to write the code. They were assured the map was merely a draft and that the zoning designation was an error that would be corrected.

That's great, Irwin thought. But just to put everyone's minds at rest, how about showing them a corrected map?

Irwin is still waiting to see one.

That map and others -- as well as the proposed code they reflect -- are not available on the city's website. They are accessible only by request from the city's planning department or the Office of Civic Investment, led by Craig Lewis and his engineering and architectural firm, The Lawrence Group.

Though city leaders have pledged openness and invited public comment as Beaufort shapes its form-based code, Lewis says the maps are not on the website because it would be "confusing" to residents to show work in progress.

"We are not trying to hide," Lewis said. "Anyone who asks for information, we are providing it to them."

However, he added the working draft is not "something that is efficiently distributed in any way, nor is it anything that individuals would want to review on their own."

Committee members seem divided over how much the public should be shown, and when.

"If you think we're behind now, wait till you get 200 people in this room," said Paul Trask, arguing that too much input when the committee members are themselves trying to correct and sort through the document could delay completion of a final draft, which is to be offered to the community and City Council for consideration.

Councilman George O'Kelley Jr., who also is on the committee, agreed.

"This committee was appointed ... to do the grunt work we're doing and not to get the whole city to come in every time we talk about a subject," he said.

But committee member Terry Murray argues that if the public is allowed to watch as revisions are made, they might catch mistakes that otherwise would be missed. What's more, opening the process might reassure residents and business owners nothing is being done on the sly.

"It seems to me that one thing we can do is to make sure people don't distrust what we are doing, and one way you can do this is to make sure everything is visible," she said.

NEW WAY TO ZONE, NEW WAY TO WORK

Form-based code is growing in popularity and differs from conventional zoning methods in that it places less emphasis on the way a building will be used and more on how it will fit into its surroundings. It has been used in small pockets throughout Beaufort County; however, the city, Port Royal and the county now want to make form-based code the basis of their zoning.

And if this concept is cutting-edge, so is the method the city is using to produce it.

The Office of Civic Investment is editing an electronic document, with the committee providing input as revisions are made. Previously, drafts might have been contained in three-ring binders or on maps stretched across drafting tables.

But this work is being done in the online cloud.

To speed a tedious process, in which every line in a 400-page document is vetted, the draft is stored online and can be accessed remotely at any time by staff and committee members. It also can be accessed by more than one person at a time.

Comments and questions are compiled by the Office of Civic Investment before committee meetings, which are held about every two weeks. Minor editing, such as grammar and spelling corrections, are made automatically, but the committee discusses more substantial changes.

Storing the draft in the cloud not only allows easier collaboration, but it also means the public could watch revisions being made in real time -- if they're given access.

"I think that's a great idea," said Irwin, who didn't buy Lewis' contention that complex and technical language is beyond the layman's grasp. "These are public meetings. And I honestly think people can figure out what's going on."

Attorney David Tedder, who is on the committee, said he has no problem with letting the public see the complicated documents the committee has been struggling with.

"(A)long the way, I see no harm in opening this up," he said. "This is subject to (the state's Freedom of Information Act). Why wait for a request? You can just throw it out there, put in a non-comment version."

A QUESTION OF ACCESS

Lewis says the committee's job is to review material, then release it to the public when the members are comfortable with it.

Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association and a freedom of information expert, disagrees.

"The fact that it's online and still a draft -- neither is a basis to deny access to it," he said. "Sometime it's more important to see the draft than the final document because then people have an opportunity to comment on that."

The committee on Wednesday asked that Lewis post the zoning maps it is working on online and update them periodically. The draft code, however, is not available on the city website and is not expected to be added until after the committee's review is completed.

The Beaufort Gazette has formally requested access to the working draft and asked that it be made publicly viewable. Lewis said that although it likely is possible to give some people viewing privileges, the Adobe software used to compile the draft could have technical limitations preventing the city from sharing it with a large group of people. He provided a digital copy of the draft code to the newspaper and is looking into satisfying the request for continuous access to the electronic version.

Committee member Don Starkey said the software allows the creation of view-only access, but he could not tell if there were limits to how many people could access it. He also said the maps and draft code should be easily accessible so he can better be the "eyes and ears of the people I was appointed to represent."

"The maps don't do you any good unless you know what the standards are," Starkey said.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

Related content:

Committee picked to guide Beaufort development code, Feb. 22, 2012

Residents ask Beaufort for more involvement in form-based code process, June 18, 2012

Professional, community input sought on proposed Beaufort form-based code, May 21, 2012

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