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FEATURE ‌ The Great State of Charleston

Today the county, tomorrow the world



In his annual State of the City address last week, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. made Charleston sound less like a city and more like a state or a region, by continually speaking about issues usually reserved for county and state officials.

After thanking citizens in the locally-televised address for the opportunity to serve them as their mayor, Riley first focused on Morris Island, which does not lie within city limits, saying this "natural part of the public realm" is in "danger of having residential buildings and other structures built on it, desecrating its sacred nature and visually scarring forever this delicate spit of land framing our harbor."

With that line, Riley appeared to be borrowing from Shakespeare ("This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," Richard II), and later from state Sen. Glenn McConnell — the president pro tem of the state Senate and avowed Civil War protectionist who has sworn to keep Morris Island unsullied — when he said the island was "most special because of the blood shed on its soil by white and African American soldiers in the Civil War."

Turning his vision inland, Riley warned that the next front in the battle against sprawl would be Francis Marion National Forest, also situated outside city limits. The mayor said the federally-protected forest is, like Morris Island, threatened by the region's climbing development pressures.

He spoke of a "compact" (read: "covenant") between several counties and municipalities to protect the forest, oddly including the Town of Awendaw, which recently rejected one plan to protect the forest.

On the city's western front, Riley warned of development's encroachment in the Watson Hill area, where several municipalities and counties are warring to see who controls, or spurs, growth along the Ashley River Road corridor.

Riley, sounding more like a candidate for state office, said, "We must come together as a region," advocating a regional planning process that would cause various communities to consider how their decisions and actions affect their neighbors.

Riley put out a call to Columbia for more money and roads in and around this booming city, while at the same time reiterating what he sees as the need to include pedestrian and bike access "as part of any highway construction and improvement," referencing the success of the footpath along the new Cooper River Bridge. This should bring succor to area bicycle advocacy groups who yearn for bike lanes and wider shoulders that aren't just last-second additions in road planning sessions.

While those on two wheels had much to celebrate in hizzoner's rhetoric, those firmly planted in the past had much to cringe about when Riley touted the ongoing revitalization of King Street and included an image of Urban Outfitters in his video broadcast.

Urban Outfitters outraged some local preservationists last year when it took over the lease on the Garden Theatre, an historic vaudeville theater, gutted it and then turned it into an upscale shopping destination. The store further enraged some locals when it printed "Save the Garden Theater" on its cloth shopping bags.

The mayor defended his position and imagery later that evening, saying the clothing store's presence breathed new life into a "seldom-used" theater space that would otherwise be dark and empty.

While Riley did return to familiar topics — the need to "reknit" the East Side, his support of public education, keeping the crime rate low, the Charleston Fire Department's Class 1 ISO rating, City government's fiscal health, and expansions in local recreation opportunities — this speech might turn out to be an historic one.

Historic because Riley partially unveiled his own property tax reform plan, usually the purview of County Council and now a hot topic in the Statehouse. To butcher a famous Jimmy Durante line, it looks like everyone wants to get into the act.

Riley supported the idea currently being kicked around Columbia of waiting a full year before implementing any property tax reform. One current proposal in the Statehouse would replace much of homeowners' tax burden with a 2-percent increase in the state sales tax from 5 to 7 percent.

Written into his speech, but cut from the broadcast for time considerations, were the following lines: "A two-cent increase in sales taxes is a dramatic change. We must make sure we understand all the ramifications of that, from the impact on working families to the economic competitiveness of our state."

Questioned after the address, Riley wished he would have had time to include the lines. "Because that's what I believe."

Pressed for specifics on his property tax plan, which is still in its nascent form, the mayor said it revolved around keeping all millage rate increases "revenue neutral," in that the amount of mills taken from houses should drop as the value of properties increase, while at the same time capping the amount of taxes that can be levied on "rapidly escalating" properties and including a cost-of-living adjustment averaged over five years.

Asked when he will completely unveil his plan, which he says doesn't include an "artificial" cap," Riley was resolute. "Soon."

What Riley wasn't so sure about is whether or not he would need to run one more time for office to accomplish everything he laid out and put out all of the "brush fires," saying afterward he hadn't made up his mind yet.

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