by Sydney Bollinger
The water in Charleston is rising, and there’s no way around it. Yet, developers continue to seek out low-lying and vulnerable areas for new construction, and often these developments have real, physical impacts on long-standing Charleston communities, like Gadsden Creek and their legal battle with WestEdge.
Flood risks will only continue to increase, so beginning in Spring 2023, the City, in collaboration with Clarion Associates began a rewrite of the zoning codes, which have not been comprehensively updated since 1966.
Zoning codes regulate specific uses and regulations for specific plots of land, including density, height, distance a building must be from the road, and size of any secondary buildings on the plot. These codes shape the type of development that happens in the City.
“In basic terms, the zoning code is the ‘what can I do with my property?’ and ‘what do I have to go through to get approval to do something with my property?’ Think of the zoning code as the instruction manual for your LEGO set,” said Robert Summerfield, City of Charleston Planning Director.
For example, single-family home zoning, which disallows building dense housing like apartment complexes, could be reduced in favor of midsized development zoning. An area with higher elevation could be zoned to encourage development, whereas an area with a major flood-risk could be zoned to discourage building major infrastructure.
To bring the zoning codes into modernity, the City is tearing them down to the basics and rebuilding with a focus on equity and resilience.
“For the City of Charleston, what does resilience mean? We are making investments in infrastructure, adapting our land use policies, our zoning ordinances, and our approaches to development to reflect current water risks and other natural hazards,” said Dale Morris, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Charleston
In developing the new zoning codes, the City will not only consider the current and future impacts of rising sea levels, but also high winds and extreme heat. The climate change impacts we are facing now are here to stay, and continuing to develop as if the impacts of climate change are not serious is a threat to the city’s longevity.
Part of this means figuring out how to best approach new development that might happen in Charleston, especially when much of the City is very low-lying. Morris, who was also the Co-Director of the Dutch Dialogues, plans to focus on zoning for development in places with higher ground, like Maybank Highway and the surrounding area.
“One of the things that we want to make sure is ‘future-proofing’ the code, making it more adaptable so that if there are new building practices or green infrastructure elements…that the code does not make it so that’s not a viable option,” said Summerfield.
Zoning codes involve building policy, but are not the same as building codes. While the rewrite can encourage the use of more sustainable materials, it will not necessarily dictate if and how those materials must be used.
Since the City of Charleston is still in the beginning of this process, it is important for citizens to be involved and advocate for zoning ordinances informed with a sustainable, climate-minded perspective. The rewrite as a whole is expected to take until 2025 to be completed.
“We have a very diverse community here in Charleston,” Summerfield said. “We want to make sure part of the reason that the code is going to take so long to write is because we need to make sure that we’re getting community input on the issues with the current codes and [the community’s] thoughts on proposed code language.”
Advocate for Charleston’s Future
Charleston Climate Coalition is working on advocacy to ensure the City of Charleston centers climate action in the zoning code rewrite. Through research and action, the group hopes to advocate for climate-friendly zoning that betters all of Charleston.
Primary research scopes include:
Looking into current zoning codes and division between building/zoning codes
Best practices from other cities
Achieving specific goals through codes
Zoning districts and their climate consequences