Let public see Beaufort's evolving zoning plan

Residents need to pay close attention to the zoning overhaul now being hashed out in Beaufort.

And the city must do more to help the public see what is under consideration.

That means making public the potential changes to a 400-page document -- and the maps that go with it -- as the changes are discussed.

One resident was alarmed to discover that the city appeared to be considering a change that would allow businesses to crop up in his neighborhood.

He was told it was a mistake, but it raised a more alarming issue -- the city's attitude that the changes under discussion are too complex for the general public to need or want access to them. That is not acceptable. Quite the opposite is true, and the law is on the public's side. The law gives people the right to see draft documents.

And when the documents and maps redefine how the city will grow and look, the public must have every bit of information at its fingertips in real time.

The city -- like the county and the town of Port Royal -- wants to switch from conventional zoning to something called "form-based code." The change is supposed to make a community more walkable by allowing stores and homes next to each other so people don't have to get in a car to do everything.

A consultant produced the 400-page document that would accomplish this, and a 20-member committee was appointed by City Council to go through it in an effort to see that it fits Beaufort's needs and wishes.

The committee is a public body, and every document in its possession is public. The material becomes public when the committee gets it, not after it has massaged it and is comfortable with its review, as the consultant suggests.

As the committee does its work, what it is considering must be available. People have a right to know what changes are being considered for their neighborhoods. That means putting maps -- and the corresponding codes -- on the city website as they evolve. The committee's work is being stored online, so the public must have access to it online.

The proposed form-based codes will eventually go to the City Council for public review and vote. But now is the time for the public to watch carefully, get educated and give input.

The Historic Beaufort Foundation is trying to help the public, and other groups should do the same. While the Historic Beaufort Foundation has not taken a stand on the form-based code, it will hold an informational session to help the public better understand what is at stake during its annual membership meeting at 5:30 p.m. March 21 at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts, 801 Carteret St. The public is invited, but there is a $15 admission fee to cover the expense of the meeting hall.

Keeping the public up to speed, no matter how cumbersome or messy that might be, must be the city's top priority.