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Decision to eliminate Historic Beaufort’s board seat stunning, disappointing

5 mins read

By SCOTT GRABER

It’s late, very late in the evening, and I’m sitting in City Council chambers at Beaufort’s City Hall. There are about 50 people left in this pleasant, well-lit, wood paneled room where it is surprisingly hard to hear Council or those who try to speak at the podium.

Notwithstanding the acoustics, those who remain are stunned, disappointed, and eager to get home and get away from Council’s vote tonight.

Mayor Billy Keyserling and his Council have just voted to strip away the Historic Beaufort Foundation’s right to nominate a representative to the City’s Historic District Review Board. The 3-2 decision was rendered three hours into the first reading (of the proposed amendment) with Mayor Keyserling leading the charge to eliminate Historic Beaufort’s seat on this Board.

Prior to its decision, the Council (other than Keyserling) sat unsmiling, and mostly stone-faced as George Trask, John Troutman, Wayne Vance, Maxine Lutz, Terry Murray and others pleaded with Council not to eliminate the foundation’s ability to nominate a person for this board.

GeorgeTrask evoked the memory of Henry Chambers, Brantley and Helen Harvey. Terry Murray said that the cities of Greenwood and Anderson have the same representative arrangement that we have here. Chuck Sims — a member of the board itself — said 99 percent of the decisions were unanimous. Dr. Eric Emerson said that the historic districts in Savannah and Charleston are under investigation (or siege) because the regulatory boards have been weakened.

It was repeatedly pointed out that the HBF representative brings the Foundation’s corporate or ‘institutional memory’ to the other four members of the board. The other four members can choose to ignore the expertise passed through the Foundation’s representative.

During this hours-long give and take, Mayor Keyserling — the leading voice for eliminating HBF’s seat — responded to HBF-leaning speakers by citing “transparency,” “state law,” and saying “there needs to be a clear line between advocacy and governance.”

After each speaker had their say almost always there was a rejoinder or rebuttal from the Mayor. But there was another thread that ran through tonight’s meeting.

That thread was made manifest by Larry Rowland, and others, who talked about the need to balance economic growth with rules and regulation that protect our architectural patrimony. But tonight Dr. Rowland came down on the side of regulation and in favor of the Foundation keeping its seat on the Historic District Review Board.

It wasn’t until late in the evening that Mayor Keyserling revealed he had seen “minutes” that proved the Foundation’s Board had directed its representative to vote in a particular way. This revelation seemed to catch everyone by surprise.

Keyserling said the dedicated seat had troubled him in 2004 when he led an unsuccessful effort to oust the Foundation’s representative. But seeing the Board minutes confirmed his worst fears; and in his opinion the Foundation had crossed a line.

The evening’s last speaker, John Tashjian, acknowledged he was a developer in New York City and he and his wife — the former Katie Cunningham — had recently bought and renovated Tidaholm. He acknowledged that he does not like regulations and has a distaste for review boards in general. Then he told the story of his dock.

Tashjian wanted a dock but the Historic Foundation was not keen on his dock. He then made application to the Historic District Review Board and they agreed that a dock was acceptable and so voted.

Tashjian’s point was that the Historic Beaufort Foundation and the District Review Board sometimes disagree. His second point was that his discussions with Maxine Lutz at the Foundation, and the resulting modifications that came after his application, made the dock better.

Tashjian did not say that he had flown down from New York this very day, on his own dollar, to testify. But he did say that Beaufort’s historic housing inventory is precious and part of its inestimable value is the fact that HBF has a seat on the Review Board.

Scott Graber is a novelist, veteran columnist and a lawyer. In his role as an attorney he has also done legal work for the Historic Beaufort Foundation. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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