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City council members are at odds with preservationists who say a proposed rezoning could cost Beaufort its historical character.
A proposal to add the former Koth's grocery store at 1601 North St. and a vacant lot at 1604 King St. to a redevelopment district that already envelops part of Bladen Street is indicative of a trend that could ruin the Downtown Historic District that "so many generations have kept intact," according to Historic Beaufort Foundation executive director Julie Good.
The Bladen Street district is designed to encourage and streamline development but still imposes size limits on new and redesigned buildings, city officials say. However, construction within the district does not need approval from the Historic Design Review Committee, which is required in other parts of the historic district.
"As far as I can see, the only object achieved in this rezoning is to remove the historic-district review board from oversight," Pete Palmer, former Historic Beaufort Foundation board chairman, said during a contentious city council meeting Tuesday.
Despite overwhelming audience disapproval -- every resident who spoke opposed the change-- council approved the rezoning unanimously, with Councilwoman Donnie Beer absent.
When the redevelopment district was created 11 months ago, the intent was to include the two properties, but the owners did not want to rezone until now, Mayor Billy Keyserling said. He said he appreciates the preservationists' concerns, but it is too late to change the council's direction.
Keyserling questioned why the foundation didn't raise concerns about the rezoning when it first was considered 11 months ago. He said during Tuesday's meeting that Palmer might have been "asleep at the wheel." Keyserling later apologized via email, text and phone message and said he was attempting to inject levity into the discussion.
Palmer accepted the apology but called the statement "out of line." He said he felt "misled" about the redevelopment district and that he inferred from public notices of the rezoning that the council was dealing only with the streetscape and landscape of Bladen Street.
He said had he known the effect of the new zoning, he would have suggested stricter size limits -- including reducing the 55-foot height limit -- and continued historic review of new projects.
Current foundation board chairman Conway Ivy also wants the historic review to remain intact, as well as limits on expansion of the redevelopment district. He has submitted a letter to city council requesting a meeting.
Not only does historic review help ensure renovations and construction are in tune with surrounding structures, but it is necessary to retain National Historic District status, he said.
"This would imply the elimination of that citizen board, and when you eliminate that citizens board, you eliminate the district because that is one of the criteria," Ivy said.
Local attorney Kathy Lindsay cautioned the council against reducing the Historic Review Board's role in downtown redevelopment, saying it preserves both the historical integrity and citizen oversight.
This "opens up the whole question of do you want the public in that room, knowing what's going on, being behind it, creating suggestions for it?" she said.
Councilman George O'Kelley said the only business the council handles in private is what is allowed by state law during closed sessions, such as litigation and personnel issues, and that he would never jeopardize the historic district.
Councilman Mike Sutton said Beaufort's historical designation will not be destroyed by development, and, with cooperation, there is room for historic review in the process.
"We hear all the time that (the district) is in danger of going away," he said. "The only way to destroy this district is to burn it down."