The City of Charleston Planning Commission is a citizen advisory group that reviews plans and planning-related ordinances such as zoning ordinances, rezonings, subdivision requests, concept plans, and street names. Its customary practice is to issue recommendations on applications brought before it by the city staff, developers, or property owners. Those recommendations are then voted upon by the Charleston City Council, which has the option of either accepting or rejecting them.
On Oct. 28, 2015 the Planning Commission took the unusual step of considering a height change for the 3X Old City Height District — more or less the entire peninsula. This zoning change was neither presented to the commission by either the city nor by the affected property owners. As noted at the time by Planning Commission member Charles Karesh, "This was Planning Commission members instigating rezoning. It's never happened in that way. Usually rezonings comes from staff members or City Council, not Planning Commission members. We're not elected officials picked to do that. We usually act on rezonings that are brought before us. We never usually instigate them."
When this recommendation made its way before City Council, it was overwhelmingly rejected. This should not have been surprising, as city staff originally advised the Planning Commission against initiating the proposed height change in the first place. Perhaps not coincidentally, shortly after the Planning Commission's recommendation was rejected, City Council proposed a change in what would be required to overturn such recommendations in the future. Whereas it currently requires a 75 percent vote of City Council to overturn a recommended zoning change from the Planning Commission, the new ordinance proposed by council would only require 60 percent. This means eight out of 13 council votes would be required rather than 10.
Charleston City Council is wise to consider reducing the amount of votes it needs to override recommendations of the city Planning Commission, especially if the commission has shown the propensity to initiate zoning changes on its own.
The Planning Commission is a non-elected advisory board created to issue recommendations on applications submitted to it. Its role is not to adopt zoning changes of its own volition, regardless of what the public sentiment may be on a particular project. Zoning changes are the sole province of City Council members who make changes under the guidance of city staff members. That is fitting since council members are elected by the city and directly accountable to Charleston voters for any ordinances they pass.
If the Planning Commission sticks to its role of issuing recommendations on the matters brought before it, then having a high threshold for City Council to override its recommendations makes sense. However, if the Planning Commission exceeds its role and begins to originate zoning changes which council never planned to consider, then it should not take a super-majority by council to reject those recommendations. Doing so unduly ties council's hands by a group of citizens who were not elected.
By way of example, it takes a two-thirds majority (as opposed to a simple majority) for Congress to override a presidential veto. The legislative and executive branches of government are two equal branches, both elected by the people. It takes a similar majority for the South Carolina Legislature to override one of our own governor's vetoes. Why should an elected body of city representatives have a more difficult time overriding the unsolicited recommendation of an unelected group of advisory board members?
Changing the threshold by City Council to overturn Planning Commission votes does not weaken the commission as much as it strengthens council. Since council members can actually be voted in or out by the public, this is where true accountability to the voters should lie.