Sullivan’s Island Residents To Help Study Town Historic Ordinances

By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News

A diverse group of local residents and Sullivan’s Island employees is expected to spend at least the next few months taking a serious look at the relationship between laws that have been enacted to protect and preserve the historic nature of the town and other codes and ordinances. 

John Winchester is the chair of the Historic Preservation and Design Study Group, a 22-member subcommittee of the Town Council’s Land Use and Natural Resources (LUNR) Committee. He pointed out that the group’s most important job will be to gather input from the residents of Sullivan’s Island. “We need citizen participation in order to be fully successful,” he commented. 

“Public input is vital.”

He said the committee probably will meet every two weeks, beginning at the end of January, then make recommendations to the LUNR Committee. Any action must be taken by the full Council. 

Winchester said his committee will be disbanded after five or six meetings. “We’ll let the discussion and the process take us as far as we need to go. Once we have conducted our study and findings and recommendations are given to the LUNR Committee, our mission is complete,” he remarked. The HPDSG meetings will be open to the public, and the group also welcomes comments from local residents through letters and emails. In addition to Winchester, voting members of the committee, recruited by Council Member Gary Visser, chair of the LUNR Committee, include: Vice Chair Aussie Geer; Planning Commission member Amanda Poletti; Elizabeth Tezza, Board of Zoning Appeals; Beverly Bohan, Design Review Board; local resident and former Council Member Rita Langley; architect Eddie Fava; builder Michael Daly; and Christina Butler, professor at the American College of Building Arts and adjunct professor at the College of Charleston. Along with Visser, non-voting members of the HPDSG are: Sullivan’s Island Planning and Zoning Director Joe Henderson; Building Official Randy Robinson; Building Inspector Max Wurthmann; Mayor Pat O’Neil; historian Roy Williams; Mike Walsh, president of the Battery Gadsden Cultural Center; and local residents Linda Perkins, Carlsen Huey, Mark Howard, Karen Coste, Kathy Craig Heller and Hal Curry. In May 2007, the Sullivan’s Island Council approved a special exception to the town’s zoning ordinance that permits property owners to keep a small, historic cottage while building a new, single-family home on the same lot. The ordinance is “also intended to keep owners from adding large incompatible additions to the cottage when drastic elevation is required,” which “can create a damaging effect on the historic district as a whole,” according to Henderson, the town’s director of planning and zoning. Henderson said there are approximately 250 historic buildings on the island. 

He added that in many cases, there is more than one building on a lot, along with structures such as cisterns, battery fortifications, walls, fences and gates. “We protect these features as well,” he said. 

The establishment of the HPDSG was mandated by the town’s Comprehensive Plan, which was completed in 2018. One objective of the plan was to “Establish a task force to review zoning, administrative processes and historical compatibility on Sullivan’s Island. The goal will be to maintain a sense of place while being respectful of the island’s traditional mass, height and scale within each neighborhood.” The town also was tasked with conducting “an evaluation of residential design guidelines to ensure consistency with the island’s open and informal character as it relates to landscape design, fences, site design and other architectural elements.” “It’s a simple question. Did we get it right with these ordinances that are in place?” Visser asked. “Is it what the community wants? Most important, what does the town really want? It’s a balancing act between historic preservation and the rights of property owners.” “We all live here for a really good reason,” he added. “There’s a lot of history here. What differentiates Sullivan’s Island from its neighbors is the historic structure of it.” Visser pointed out that the subcommittee’s job will not be to rewrite the town’s ordinances but to note “where we can see improvements.” Visser said he doesn’t really know yet what the results of the Historic Preservation and Design Study Group’s work will be. “Will we change anything? I have no clue. Will we get an overwhelming voice that we want everything to stay the same? I just don’t know,” he said. 

“But it will be clear what our town ordinances are. It’s not necessarily clear now,” he concluded.

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