Integrity is as important as protecting history

7 mins read

By BILLY KEYSERLING

David Taub’s well-researched opinion piece proposing Historic Beaufort Foundation (HBF) should be entitled to a special designated seat on the city’s Historic Review Board presents an insightful and useful overview of the history of the Historic Beaufort Foundation and its many contributions to the city. 

I agree with much of what David writes but take exception to his assertion that because the city has always allocated one of five seats (20 percent of the vote) be appointed by The Historic Beaufort Foundation, we should continue to do so.

Since David was mayor (more than 20 years ago) the times have changed. The public expects a higher level of transparency and stronger ethical standards, and the perceptions of both, are foremost on citizens’ minds. In these times, 20 percent of the vote of any regulatory agency should not be in hands of one special interest group. 

Throughout my 19 years representing the people of Beaufort, in several capacities, I have tried to make decisions based on the “what” and not the “who” when questions like this arise.

“The who”

I have high respect for the work of HBF, have been a member for years and believe they are an important (“arm’s length”) partner with the City in our shared goal of protecting the historic fabric and integrity that helps Beaufort remain special. But even though they have mastered the regulatory standards with the city, it does not mean the Home Builders or Realtors Associations, or any other special interest, also engaged in shaping a better Beaufort should be not be entitled to appointments to regulatory positions with a seat at the table. 

“The what”

I have consistently believed that no “special interest” should have appointment power of members of regulatory entities before whom they “lobby.” While I understand the comfort the HBF enjoys to have the guarantee of one of three necessary votes on any project, I also understand this creates an ethics perception that can appear to taint a fair process. How would HBF feel if the Homebuilders or Realtors Associations had one of three votes in their pocket? Both have at one time or another asked for a seat.

No adverse impact to the proposed change

Nothing in the proposal prevents members or supporters of the Historic Beaufort Foundation from applying to serve on the Board. Two or more members or supporters of HBF serve on the Historic Review Board at this time. Not because they were selected by HBF, but because in interviews they demonstrated knowledge and respect for the process and were willing to give their time.

Given the respect HBF has earned, the city suggests a special role for their expertise in the processes. When they come to Council workshops and meetings, they are always invited to the podium to present their views. We often solicit their comments.

Furthermore, applicants are encouraged early in the process to review their proposed projects with HBF, through its Preservation Committee, before submittal so that the applicant fully understands the standards and is prepared for a comprehensive review.

I hope HBF will continue to offer this advisory service, as it is a great asset to applicants, to the Historic Review Board and the city. When active as a real estate broker representing buyers and sellers in the Historic District, I always counseled clients who had big ideas to “improve” a property to get the benefit of HBF’s experience and knowledge during their due diligence period.

Also, of importance, HBF is engaged — almost like an attorney representing a client (the historic integrity of the district) — at each formal Board review, because they have the expertise. In this capacity they are active participants in the review.

The important role of HBF is not being diminished by not having one of three necessary votes guaranteed on each project. 

We are passionate about protecting our special historic character. At the same time, the integrity of the process is critical.

Since I was elected mayor, I have done my best to not speak for other members of council because they, like I, listen to reasoned arguments like Dr. Taub’s and others who have opinions before they cast votes. 

The times have changed, and we must respect the higher level of transparency, accountability and the perceptions of those we represent. 

Fortunately, the modest change we are considering need not have an adverse effect on the golden egg of an Historic Landmark District that is one of our state’s most treasured four National Historic Landmark Districts. 

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not express gratitude to the team, led by Beaufort, Port Royal, Brick Baptist Church and Penn Center with help from HBF and others who supported Congressmen Clyburn, Sanford and Cunningham to establish a National Historical Park, surrounding the City’s and Penn Center’s Landmark Districts which will grow and be protected forever. 

Billy Keyserling is the mayor of the City of Beaufort.

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