Municipal zoning codes are generally ponderous documents. The legalese and technical jargon can be overwhelming, but having even a basic familiarity with zoning ordinances is critical to understanding how and why a city takes its physical form. PSC is here to help make sense of the Charleston Zoning Ordinance for you.
Section 54-206 of the Charleston Zoning Ordinance lists particular uses that may be allowed in certain zoning districts by the granting of a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals – Zoning (BZAZ). The board may grant the special exception if it finds that certain requirements are met. Of specific interest under Sec. 54-206 is subsection “a,” which is a special exception use allowing additional dwelling units in the various SR (single-family residential) zoning districts. It states: “Additional dwelling units shall be permitted as an exception within all single-family residential, SR zoning districts, in dwellings constructed prior to August 17, 1966, where the Board (BZAZ), after review, finds that such existing dwelling contains such an amount of space available and suitable for residential purposes that it is unreasonable to require its use as a single-family dwelling.”
This special exception is problematic because if the single-family dwelling in question is one of the scores of historic residences that make up Charleston’s largest and most exceptional architecture, granting Sec. 54-206(a) becomes potentially deleterious to the character of those dwellings and the National Historic Landmark District as a whole. It is extremely difficult to add dwelling units within an historic single-family house and not diminish its integrity; far too often character-defining features of the historical fabric, such as interior staircases and original floor plans and ornamentation, are altered or demolished.
A corollary issue with Sec. 54-206(a) is its prescriptive language and, therefore, how it is applied. The board is required to grant the special exception in practically every case because of the verbiage: “Additional dwelling units shall be permitted…where the board, after review, finds that such existing dwelling contains such an amount of space available and suitable for residential purposes that it is unreasonable to require its use as a single-family dwelling.” Essentially, in cases with houses that have substantial square footages, the board must grant the owner the right to have additional dwelling units.
Sec. 54-206(a) was written at a time when the real estate market was less able to support single-family use, and the preservation ethic recognized and practiced today was still inchoate. There was less demand for single-family dwellings with large square footages, and the stately historic houses in primarily residential neighborhoods needed inhabitants to maintain them. If giving a dwelling a purpose, thereby preserving it, meant splitting it into apartments or multiple ownerships, then so be it. Today, best practices in preservation would most often be to avoid such a route, and examples of grand residences occupied by just one family abound in Charleston’s historic districts.
When the BZAZ voted in June of 2015 to grant a special exception for additional dwelling units for 1 Meeting Street, one of the finest and most substantial dwellings in the city, it struck a nerve with preservationists as setting a dubious precedent. In the Charlestowne neighborhood alone, the area south of Broad Street, there are dozens of houses of comparable sizes to 1 Meeting Street. If all of these owners were to seek special exceptions for additional dwelling units, then a significant portion of the city’s historic residential architecture undoubtedly would be compromised. Once historic fabric is gone, it is gone forever. Elements can be reconstructed, but they are typically done so with inferior materials and at an unnecessary expense to subsequent owners.
A property that can be subdivided or rented as multiple units is likely to fetch a higher asking price with the added income potential.Because of this, and as long as the language in 54-206(a) remains as is, homeowners may tend to give themselves and their properties an edge and capitalize in a competitive seller’s market by adding dwelling units. The maxim, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” is quite fitting in this situation. If the thought of partitioning and subdividing Charleston’s exceptional historic dwellings causes concern, talk to your City Council representative about a much-needed amendment to the troublesome language in 54-206(a).
By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives
Image: 1 Meeting Street