Local Life: Form-based code must protect area history

In local coffee shops and bars, progressive-minded citizens of Beaufort are asking, sometimes in fear of revealing their ignorance, "What are form-based zoning codes, and do I really need or want to know?"

News reporters, city officials and consultants hired to teach us have kept that hyphenated phrase before the public for months in print and in public meetings, yet for many of us the words still don't roll off the tongue.

The time has come for someone to interpret for the rest of us how the new codes will affect our individual properties and the appearance of the city for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the city of Beaufort has appointed a committee of our friends and neighbors to determine whether the proposed codes are a good thing for us as we plan future development and redevelopment downtown, in our subdivisions and neighborhoods, and in our commercial and rural areas. And if, as drafted by the consultants, the codes are not a good thing, those friends and neighbors have been authorized to rewrite them so they are a good thing for us.

For Historic Beaufort Foundation, it was particularly fortunate that the city allowed us to designate an individual to this group to formally represent the foundation's mission to preserve and protect the architectural heritage in our National Historic Landmark District. This new form of zoning is unprecedented in any community with Beaufort's history and architectural stature. In fact, to our knowledge, it never has been adopted in any landmark district in the country, and we believe it will be very challenging to apply the codes successfully to the district.

Therefore, Historic Beaufort Foundation has brought consultant Cynthia Jenkins to the table to ensure that what we inherited from three centuries of evolving architecture and history is protected in the new codes. Jenkins has a long history in Beaufort's and Charleston's historic districts. She was the foundation's executive director for eight years during an era when many still did not fully appreciate the historical and architectural integrity of the landmark district. Prior to that, in the 1980s, she wrote the first-ever guide to the historical resources of the Lowcountry. She went on to spend 15 years as director of Charleston's Preservation Society. Indeed, her expertise in protecting the rarity and distinction of landmark districts will serve the community well.

The foundation believes the stature of landmark districts cannot be taken lightly, and they must be treated with respect for their rarity. Designated by the U.S. government for their national historical significance, they are geographic areas so noteworthy that in South Carolina alone, of the 160 historic districts listed by the National Park Service, only four are landmark districts. That's why the introduction of codes based on the design and appearance of buildings and their relationship to the street will not be easy. Currently, everyday uses such as shops, housing and industry are separated from each other; that's not the case in form-based zoning.

The foundation will actively and constructively participate in the committee's work while maintaining our focus on protecting the district. We will keep you informed of the committee's progress.

Call our office at 843-379-3331 if you have questions or concerns.

Maxine Lutz is the interim executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.