Charleston City Council occasionally becomes an arena for full-contact politics, which by its nature is a spectator sport. By far the most fascinating clash at Tuesday night’s council meeting took place between the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association and its neighbor, First Baptist Church, which was seeking school zoning for the private school that has been meeting on its campus since 1949.
“The relationship between the school and the neighborhood is strained to say the least,” said one resident of the tony South of Broad neighborhood during an increasingly heated public comment session.
The problem, it seems, is that every morning and afternoon during the school year, traffic clogs up some city streets when students come and go from First Baptist School.
“The people living on Church Street really don’t have access to their house for 20 to 30 minutes at drop-off and pick-up time each day,” said Randy Pelzer, a member of the neighborhood association. “The traffic backs up from the church almost to Broad Street.”
The church and the neighborhood association have been hammering out a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the matter for years, and it is close to completion. According to City Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents the district, the MOU was being discussed as late as 10 p.m. Monday night. Among the terms of the MOU, the school will move its high school portion to a new location off the peninsula, adopt new methods for preschool drop-off and pick-up, and limit its total enrollment to a smaller number.
The residents were up in arms Tuesday night because they wanted City Council to delay approving the school zoning for First Baptist until the church signed the MOU. The new zoning would allow the school to make improvements on its property
“I would suggest the time to get that agreement signed is now, not after you approve this overlay,” said Jerry Smith, a former resident of the neighborhood who said he lived across the street from First Baptist for six years.
First Baptist Pastor Marshall Blalock sounded conciliatory, smoothing out his suit with his hands as he rose to answer the neighbors’ complaints. “We had a handshake agreement on the MOU today,” he told Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and City Council. “Delaying, however, puts us further back on accomplishing the very goals of the neighborhood and the church.” Then he introduced John Hagerty, whom he described as a representative of the church and who spoke with a bit more Baptist fire.
“Yes, there may be 20 minutes in the morning or afternoon associated with the school, but that’s a small price to pay for little feet on the street going to school, the sound of kids learning, something that makes Charleston a living, breathing city,” Hagerty said. “The issue we have with the delay is that the delay helps that group of people who want to see the entire school off the peninsula.”
Shots fired, y’all.
City planner Tim Keane laid out what was at stake with the zoning request. “If they don’t get the overlay, they can’t make any changes to the campus,” Keane said. “For example, if they have a relatively modern building on the campus that they would like to take down and build something new, we couldn’t issue them a permit for that.”
In response, several City Council members came down particularly hard on the neighborhood association for attempting to jam up the zoning process with their MOU demands.
“There are new schools being built. Does a school have to go to a neighborhood to get an MOU prior to opening that school?” Councilman Aubry Alexander asked. “I guess my concern is, what kind of precedent are we setting here? It seems this neighborhood is not experiencing anything different than at any of the other schools in our district.”
Other councilmembers made reference to identical school-related woes in their own districts, often involving much larger schools. Councilman Perry Waring said traffic regularly backs up on Highway 61 near his office when school lets out at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary. But he, too, worried about the precedent being set. “How many other schools would we require that?” he said, referring to the protracted MOU process.
And Councilman Robert Mitchell, who has lived on King Street for years, said he has always had to contend with congested traffic during pick-up and drop-off times at Charleston Catholic School. He said he regularly can’t get in or out of his driveway. His solution? “We deal with it.”
City Council approved the rezoning unanimously.