As Historic Beaufort Foundation’s seat on city review board hangs in balance, many say character of city is at stake
By MINDY LUCAS
Many of Beaufort’s community leaders, both past and present, were on hand at the city’s regular council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 26 – a meeting that pitted impassioned preservationists who believe the character of the city is at stake against developers who accused a local historic preservation organization of overreaching.
Those leaders, along with residents and developers, rose during the more than four-hour meeting to give their thoughts on a controversial amendment that would remove Historic Beaufort Foundation’s (HBF) longstanding seat on the city’s Historic District Review Board.
While ultimately council members voted 3 to 2 on first reading to remove the seat, their action was not without significant pushback from the community Tuesday night.
“We don’t want to destroy this town, but it can be destroyed,” said longtime Beaufort resident and attorney George Trask, who pleaded with those on city council not to take the seat away.
“Please don’t allow this and don’t allow the excuse of some legal notion to be the rationale for getting rid of this representative,” he said.
Trask’s comments, which were met with loud applause by those in attendance, were echoed by many of Beaufort’s longtime residents as well as some newcomers who fear the removal of a historic preservation expert from the review board would lead to the city’s downfall as a place of historic and special significance.
Without oversight, looser requirements could usher in an era of substandard housing and more and bigger development with buildings that don’t fit in with the city’s historic character, many said.
However, Mayor Billy Keyserling reiterated his position, that 20 percent of the vote of any regulatory agency should not be in the hands of one special interest group, a position he had outlined a week earlier in a column for The Island News.
“So why, when we are liable and could be at fault, would we give this authority away …” he added Tuesday night.
He reminded those gathered that the removal of the seat from the review board would not prevent the HBF from recommending applicants – whether their own members or other supporters – for the committee’s five-member board.
Keyserling also brought up earlier comments made by Dick Stewart.
The Beaufort developer has, at times, butted heads with the Historic Beaufort Foundation (HBF) over projects he has wanted to build in and around the city’s historic district.
“Mr. Stewart talked about (how) he could have sued, but he didn’t because he didn’t want a war,” Keyserling said.
Stewart brought up his company’s latest project earlier in the meeting, a student housing development built for USC Beaufort along Boundary Street. Completed last summer, the project was initially to be one apartment building that spanned the block. However, the city’s review board ruled otherwise, Stewart said, citing the building’s size.
“I could have sued and won that, but that would have taken a long time, and USCB’s students would not have had a place to live, and USCB wouldn’t have offered courses here, so we ate the cost …,” he said.
The comments came during a separate discussion on a number of changes to the Beaufort Development Code city council is considering. Among those changes is the removal of a 160-foot restriction on the size of apartment buildings.
Stewart maintained it is more expensive to build separate buildings and having to build two, in order to meet that restriction, added about $250,000 more to the project.
The discussion seemed to only add to the contention between those who attended the meeting.
Stewart and other developers at the meeting, called the number “arbitrary” and cited other buildings in town that were wider than 160 feet including Saltus and Beaufort Baptist Church.
But preservationists and others took issue with that characterization saying those buildings were there before the code was passed, were historic and saved as a result.
Rikki Parker with the Coastal Conservation League said the code, based on a typical 300 by 300 foot Beaufort city block, was meant to ensure that developers didn’t build “monolithic building types” that then dominated a block.
“Can you imagine what a large-scale dormitory at that location would do, and how it would change the look of the Bellamy Curve,” she said. The new USCB dormitories are a perfect example of the wisdom of the planning decision, she added.
“What we’re seeing is the impacts of a good and strong regulation within the code,” she said.
Still, Stewart argued that the process for working with the city’s historic review board has changed over the years, and that HBF as an organization is “not what it used to be.”
Stewart has not shied away from voicing his frustrations with the HBF at review meetings in the past and has taken particular issue with what he says is a lack of consensus on suggested changes to projects he’s proposed.
“HBF should be a serious partner and should work with those of us who are willing to invest in making the historic district better,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “… HBF should be your partner and our partner, and not the personal platform for one or two individuals to put forth their preferences.”
City Council members Billy Keyserling, Nan Sutton and Mike McFee voted to remove the seat, while Stephen Murray and Phil Cromer voted against the amendment. City council is expected to take up the issue again at its Dec. 10 meeting.