When it comes to Civic Master Plan, the city needs to build trust

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By Pamela Brownstein

After attending last week’s workshop for the Beaufort Civic Master Plan, I walked away with two conclusions. The first is that there are many residents who care about where they live and are vigilant about the planning process and want to make sure the city of Beaufort is aware of their concerns in regards to the long-term plans for their neighborhoods. The second conclusion I reached was that the officials leading the workshop seemed put off by the public input and were not taking seriously the concerns of the crowd.

I have been interested and involved in the development of the Beaufort Master Plan since the beginning, having attended meetings and charettes for my neighborhood, known by the city as Sector 2, which encompasses the area West of Ribaut Road, including the Hermitage and Depot areas as well as TCL and Beaufort Memorial Hospital. It is a large area, with many different small neighborhoods, but overall it is residential with single family homes, where people enjoy quiet streets, but at the same time, their proximity to downtown.

With this description in mind, and the desire to preserve the character of our neighborhood, it is no wonder that the development and projects seen in the city’s Master Plan have raised concerns with many residents. The three main projects slated for Sector 2 would involve businesses, dense housing developments, and much more traffic.

Of the 50 or so people at the public meeting at City Hall, many of them had copies of the Master Plan printed out from the city’s website — close to 300 pages. These Sector 2 residents were organized, having met with their neighbors in advance to look at the plans and craft questions and concerns to address at the meeting. Their efforts are admirable and show the commitment to making sure that their voices are heard. And as anyone at the meeting could hear, these are voices filled with skepticism and mistrust over the contents of the Master Plan. Those who live around the Depot area are wary of the plans for outdoor pavilions, shops and possibly restaurants around the new Spanish Moss Rail Trail.

One man, who owns a large tract of waterfront property in the Hermitage area, asked outright why the plan shows a development with more than 70 homes on his land. He said no one from the city ever approached him about the use of the land, and he said he has no intention of selling or developing it. The chairman of the city Redevelopment Commission who was leading the meeting, Jon Verity, responded by saying these plans are just ideas about possible uses for the land, to show people what could be. But why would the city even bother coming up with plans for someone’s private property? Did out-of-town planners see a large open waterfront tract on the map and decide that it would be a good place for more development?

This seems to be the case for the project proposed for my neighborhood. This working class area is characterized by small, older homes, where children play and people walk dogs and neighbors are friendly and helpful. Our parks and playgrounds are tiny, our streets flood when it rains, and caution to anyone should try to push a newborn baby in a stroller on our sidewalks because they are bumpy, uneven, and in many places, nonexistent. The speed limit on our streets is 30 mph. Along several side streets, there is a large wooded area with trails that flanks the water. I have no idea who proposed to build a multi-story retirement building and community on this land, but I guarantee it was not someone who lives in our neighborhood, because it could not be more out of place.

When I asked Mr. Verity about the retirement project, specifically the access roads that would have to built to accommodate the increased traffic, he said curtly that there are no buyers for this land yet (which did not answer my question at all). When someone else asked where this is located, he simply said: “There is nothing there right now.” Yeah, nothing except a nice patch of woods that buffers the water and adds to the tranquility and rustic feel of our neighborhood.

Another question raised by a resident was why the Master Plan called for the removal of the grassy, tree-filled median that runs the length of Hermitage Road in order to make room for parking spaces along the side of the road. Mr. Verity said he wasn’t aware this was in the plan.

Verity’s indifference and the attitude of Craig Lewis, the planner/consultant for the Office of Civic Investment, seemed out of sync with the public’s questions and concerns. Lewis appeared detached and almost amused, especially when someone referenced a specific page number from the Master Plan draft. His tone was patronizing as he assured residents that all their issues would be corrected online and passed on to City Council members (speaking of our elected officials, none were present at the workshop, except for Donnie Beer who left early.) Lewis seemed condescending toward the crowd, and in return, the residents did not seem consoled by his reassurances that their requests would be properly handled.

I hope that the city can see that the residents of Sector 2 are not on board with their plans for our neighborhood, and will do the right thing and remove these out-of-scale, unsustainable projects from the final draft of the master plan. Maybe instead of spending time pondering grandiose visions of inappropriate future development we can instead focus on basic improvements and projects we can all agree on like sidewalks, drainage, the removal of dilapidated structures, responsible in-fill development and parks. Forgive me, but with two years of public meetings, I thought the point of this whole exercise was to ask what we want. Now it seems we are on the receiving end of what outsiders want. But, I’m just a resident of Beaufort, what do I know?