Beaufort must slow redevelopment project

City of Beaufort officials should show the public its plans before seeking rezoning.

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 17, 2014 

The people are pushing back at Beaufort City Hall, opposing the speed and order of events in a proposal to redevelop the Beaufort Downtown Marina and its parking lot.

They want to see developers' ideas for the site before the area is rezoned, not after. Many also are suspicious of rumblings that the Freedom Mall, currently preserved as open space, will be designated for development and some other, yet-to-be-determined parcel will be set aside in its stead.

Who can blame the people for their arousal, given the secretive, done-deal approach of the Beaufort Redevelopment Commission, which is brokering these plans?

The Beaufort/Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission has paid attention to the people's concerns. The advisory panel voted against rezoning of public parcels after impassioned public input during its meeting Jan. 13.

The Redevelopment Commission should take heed, as well. It needs to retrieve its credibility and keep dissatisfaction with the process it has employed from metastasizing into outright opposition to marina redevelopment.

This point bears repeating: The small, shopworn building and expanse of asphalt on the marina property are not the highest and best use of a visible, waterfront property. Consensus about the scale and sweep of change will be difficult to achieve under any circumstances, but if the Redevelopment Commission continues to treat the project as a private enterprise, any change at all might become impossible.

The commission should work to quench ill will, not inflame it, but that has not been the case.

For instance, a draft last April of the package used to solicit ideas from potential developers suggested the Freedom Mall could be incorporated into the project.

Fortunately, member Wendy Zara pointed out the property was not "our piece of property to bargain with," and the chairman of the board of the Beaufort County Open Land Trust produced the organization's agreement with the city that shows the land was given to Beaufort on the condition it remain open space.

The idea of building on the mall might have been dismissed as an oversight had it not floated to the surface again as the city's redevelopment partner, Historic Marina Partners LLC, prepares to unveil its plans, possibly by month's end. Its resurrection is fodder for those inclined to believe, rightly or wrongly, that plans for the marina were set long before ideas were sought from the public, or even other developers.

To their credit, some Redevelopment Commission members have recently expressed skepticism that the developers would be successful should they seek to remove restrictions at the mall (though that is not the same as opposing development there).

Skepticism might be sufficient to convince the developers to leave the Freedom Mall intact. If their plans do not, however, those opposed to development on this green space can still take solace: Such a move would require consent from the city and the Open Land Trust, slowing this process and opening it to public input.

Such deliberateness would be welcomed and is not tantamount to ending planning altogether. City staff demonstrated as much when it talked to public and private land holders near the marina, then prepared an alternative rezoning plan for the Beaufort/Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission's consideration. This plan B would keep the mall and a nearby park protected from development, redesignate two private lots as "neighborhood commercial" and zone the rest as "core commercial."

The Beaufort/Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission voted prudently, approving the changes for the six private properties but declining to sign off on changes to public property.

Further rezoning will almost certainly be necessary to make the project viable for private developers, and the public should remain open to the possibility.

However, the prudent course is to delay rezoning until the developers have offered their plans and the public knows what rezoning is likely to bring.

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