Commendably, Mayor Billy Keyserling often shows young residents around City Hall, enlightening them to the ins and outs of city government. Recently, two Cub Scouts attended a council work session, and as the mayor introduced those in the room to the youngsters, he pointed to the public in attendance and said, "Some of them are regulars at city meetings. We call them watchdogs." The young Scouts looked confused, not seeing any canines in the room, and it was all I could do to refrain from barking for comedic effect.
Recently, Historic Beaufort Foundation's role as a watchdog has been in the fore because important decisions are being made that affect the National Historic Landmark District, a 304-acre piece of the city for which we have responsibility to advocate. Not only does the National Park Service, the S.C. Department of Archives and History, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Internal Revenue Service expect us to perform that role, our 1,000 members and supporters expect that of us.
Currently on the table for city council action are a civic master plan that provides a vision for Beaufort's future, new zoning codes that affect every neighborhood in town, and rezoning and possible sale of the downtown marina parking lot. All this activity has been closely followed by a small pack of watchdogs, including HBF.
On Feb. 11, the city council will decide, or not, to include a preservation vision suggested by HBF into its overall vision for the next 100 years, and HBF will have decided whether it can support a master plan that does not, up front, say, "These are the integrities and guidelines that we expect developers, contractors and homeowners to adhere to in the historic district."
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At its Feb. 25 meeting, council will hear the public speak as to whether the marina parking lot should be rezoned from conservation/preservation to core commercial to allow for retail, hotel/motel, etc. At this point, HBF's position is that this application by the city to rezone has been rushed and there are questions that need to be answered by council before any rezoning is conducted. The primary question is whether Beaufort residents who are owners of the parking lot want it leased or sold for dense development.
HBF is called on monthly in its watchdog role to review new construction in the historic district and changes to historic buildings and provide comments to the Historic District Review Board. While a collegial relationship exists between HBF and the review board, and we agree more often than not, there is not always consensus on appropriate action to take. But the review board has the final say.
That happened recently when HBF questioned a decision by the review board to allow an extensive unpermitted and unapproved new 450-square-foot addition to remain on a 218-year-old house. The decision and the process were contrary to the city's ordinances and the historic district guidelines, and HBF barked.
In instances like this, and when council is making decisions that affect the entire historic district, a small few criticize HBF for taking public stands and suggest it's not our role. We believe we conduct our mission faithfully. We present sites and artifacts of historic, architectural and cultural interest through our operation of the Verdier House Museum and its educational programs, and we support the preservation and protection of historic sites throughout the county through hands-on projects and advocacy. When we sit in the watchdog seat at public meetings, we can honestly answer the question, "If not us, who?"
Maxine Lutz is the executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.