City of Charleston, South Carolina Comprehensive Plan 2021

In the Charleston City Plan 2021 (the Plan), the City of Charleston, South Carolina presents a roadmap to guide land-use planning, policy, and investment through 2030 with a focus on creating a more resilient and equitable future. This state-mandated comprehensive plan can serve as a resource and tool for a variety of users including city staff, residents, and community organizations. In the Plan, the city focuses its recommendations on areas within Charleston’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) and more specifically, addresses the unique characteristics of the five areas of the city that are separated by waterways. The City of Charleston weaves resilience throughout the Plan and also treats resilience and equity as an independent Plan element. In addition, the Plan addresses elements for Affordable Housing, Land-Use, and Natural Resources, among others to accommodate population growth in the face of increasing flood risk. 

Over the past decade, Charleston has experienced economic growth and an increase in population, which have increased carbon emissions, gentrification, and income disparities. These impacts have been compounded by sea-level rise and extreme weather events that have damaged infrastructure and greatly impacted public safety, economic activity, and the quality of life in Charleston. The Plan represents a ten-year vision of how to protect and prepare the city’s residents, infrastructure, and natural resources. In completing this version of the Plan, the city was influenced by a new state law. In 2020, state legislation in the Disaster Relief and Resilience Act added resilience to the list of required elements for comprehensive plans.

Throughout the entire plan, the city provides a crosscutting focus on resilience and equity. The Resilience and Equity Framework applied throughout the Plan is shaped by three principles: 

  1. A plan aimed at building resilience must first achieve equity. 
  2. Recognition that there are existing disparities that deny certain communities equal access to opportunities. 
  3. Communities are more resilient when they can meet the needs of all community members. 

Overall, the Plan contains nine key elements including: 

  • Cultural Resources: The city outlines its plan to identify and preserve historical landmarks and manage cultural resources. In particular, the Plan focuses on protecting African-American settlement communities. 
  • Economic Development: As the economy rebuilds after a recession, the city seeks to create an inclusive economy that leverages Charleston’s cultural and natural resources. The Plan details the importance of increasing sustainable tourism, affordable commercial properties for local businesses, and access to quality food in food desserts. 
  • Transportation: The city will aim to pursue Transit Oriented Development (TOD) strategies and prioritize access to transit for affordable housing to improve mobility and decrease total cost of living. The Plan also suggests expanding publicly accessible electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, increasing rideshare and other transit options, and creating a fund to ensure the maintenance of walking and cycling paths. 
  • Community Facilities and Priority Investment: Developed and maintained by the Capital Projects Review Committee (CPR), the five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) recommends projects and funding sources for the city’s short- and long-term capital needs. The Plan is informed by and supplements the CIP, which focuses on specific infrastructure improvements in culture and recreation, public service, urban and community development.

The rest of this entry focuses on the Plan’s elements for: Affordable Housing, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Resilience and Equity.

Affordable Housing

In the past decade, the population of the City of Charleston increased 13 percent, which subsequently increased median rent and home sale prices by 51 percent and 54 percent, respectively. In the Plan, the city presents the importance of managing population growth in a way that increases affordability for Charleston residents. The majority of affordable housing in Charleston is not deed-restricted and is known as naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH). With no deed restrictions or regulations ensuring that these NOAH units remain affordable, they can vanish. On average, only 94 NOAH units are preserved or generated in Charleston each year. 

To increase the amount of NOAH stock, the Plan suggests assisting low-income and African-American property owners to retain, reinvest, and redevelop their properties. The Plan also encourages the city to increase landlord participation in rental assistance and other community housing programs. 

Based on current population projections, Charleston would need to create over 16,000 affordable housing units to eliminate the housing affordability gap. In the Plan, the city suggests expanding incentives in more base zoning districts to include unit density bonuses, reduced setbacks and lot sizes, and reduced or eliminated parking minimums when residences are located in close proximity to public transit. The city also recommends creating a tiered incentive structure for affordable housing based on its type, level of affordability, and geographic location. 

The city also underscores the importance of developing diverse housing types in mixed-used and mixed-income communities (those in which market rate and subsidized housing are located in the same development or neighborhood). 

To reduce regulatory obstacles that hinder the construction of affordable housing and disproportionately burden low-income communities, the Plan recommends that the city implement policies, such as expedited review and permitting, reduced fees, and affordable materials standards. To increase affordable housing, the Plan also suggests that housing increases in maximum residential densities should be conditional on the basis that a certain percentage of new units be reserved for affordable housing.

To pursue equitable housing development, the Plan discusses the need for increased housing security for existing residents in areas at risk of displacement. Specifically, the city calls for policy solutions tailored to preserve historic African-American settlement communities. The city should approximate the boundaries of the African-American settlements established during Reconstruction to give them prominence and ensure their future is determined by the community. The establishment of boundaries would signal the city’s intention to protect these communities and that they are worthy of investment. 

Land-Use Considerations and Relocation

As the city’s population continues to grow, the Plan aims to direct the development of Charleston over the next ten years with climate change in mind. In 2019, Charleston City Council adopted the Dutch Dialogues Charleston Report, which conceptualized a “living with water” future for Charleston. In this model, the urban landscape works in harmony with the water. The Plan marks the first time that Charleston has considered analyses of both land and water when constructing land-use policies. As such, the Plan recommends updating the city’s zoning ordinance based on land elevation and an understanding of climate change implications.   

The consultants who led the Dutch Dialogues also conducted the City Plan and Water Analysis (LWA), which studies characteristics of land and water in Charleston. The City Plan LWA identifies the highest and lowest areas in the city, which can be used to inform elevation-based land-use decisions. With this information, the City Plan LWA drove the development of a Future Land Use Map to guide land-use and growth management decisions. The City Plan LWA presents four broad adaptation planning strategies that can be implemented depending on the zone:  

  • Grow: Increase development and population density in low-sensitivity and low-risk areas. Growth must take place alongside water management.   
  • Defend: Use engineered measures, such as berms and flood walls, to protect infrastructure. Defensive measures should be reserved for high-risk and low-sensitivity areas. 
  • Adapt: Retrofit vulnerable existing infrastructure to be resilient to water risks. This approach is limited by building capacity. 
  • Reserve: Restore and preserve natural ecosystems. This strategy is applicable to all zones and should impact future change.  

Applying this framework, the city should adapt and defend structures in low-lying areas wherever feasible. The city should also reduce densities in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to flooding and halt development in future marsh migration areas. When relocating individuals from low-lying and at-risk areas, the city should engage in creative and equitable urban planning that ensures each neighborhood has access to transportation, parks, and other services. 

In its planning efforts, the city will also aim to uphold its commitment to environmental justice by considering its history of redlining, segregation, and lack of attention to environmental hazards in lower-income neighborhoods. Charleston’s most underserved neighborhoods are most vulnerable to flooding, extreme heat, and hazardous materials. According to Charleston’s 2020 All Hazards Vulnerability and Risk Assessment, approximately 71 percent of all hazardous materials are found in these neighborhoods. 

As the city pursues development in high-elevation areas, the Plan focuses on ensuring that this high-elevation growth does not negatively impact stormwater in downstream areas. As such, the city will aim to equip private property owners with information about parcel elevation, drainage basins, and soil type to inform local stormwater management. Through these education initiatives, the city can proactively engage in effective water management that protects middle- and low-elevation areas downstream. 

Natural Resources 

The Plan outlines the ways that Charleston can design land-use policies to protect natural resources and advance nature-based flood mitigation solutions. A central recommendation in the plan is around the city’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Specifically, the city should create land-use regulations and incentives to support the UGB. Established in 2000, the UGB preserves natural, historical, and agricultural resources outside of the developed parts of Charleston. The city can continue to protect land outside of the UGB through land acquisitions, park development, and conservation easements. The rural areas and protected lands outside of the UGB provide stormwater retention and improve air quality for the entire region. 

Established by Charleston County in 2004, the Greenbelt Program acquires land for conservation, wetlands protections, historical and cultural preservation, and waterway access. In 2016, Charleston County citizens approved a sales tax that will provide an additional $210 million for Greenbelt Programs over the next 25 years. The Plan suggests that the city creates a Greenbelt land prioritization plan and coordinates with adjacent jurisdictions to protect more open spaces, especially along the UGB. 

The city should implement land-use and transportation planning strategies to account for marsh and wetlands migration due to sea-level rise, including vegetated buffers to allow space for the wetlands to migrate and restricting development and roadways in tidal flood risk zones. These strategies are also pursuant of the “living with water” framework presented in the Dutch Dialogues. The Plan supports these suggestions and underscores the importance of protecting existing wetlands as well as places expected to become wetlands in the future due to sea-level rise. Wetlands serve as effective nature-based flood solutions. By protecting inland areas and corridors for wetlands to move in response to rising seas, the city can expand its natural flood mitigation infrastructure too.  

Green infrastructure, such as clusters of trees and wetlands buffers, can serve as effective stormwater management tools for a fraction of the cost of traditional man-made infrastructure. Wetlands buffers are concentrations of trees, shrubs, and native plants and gradually sloping banks next to wetlands. Wetlands buffers provide flood storage by slowly filtrating floodwater, protect water quality by capturing pollutants from stormwater runoff, and preserve habitats by cooling water temperatures to be more suitable for fish. 

The Plan also presents these nature-based solutions as effective ways of improving water quality in Charleston. Stormwater runoff is the most common way that pollutants enter Charleston’s water supply. As such, the city presents strategies to reduce and manage stormwater runoff, such as vegetated buffers, trees, and bioretention basins. In the plan, the city also recommends designing incentives and educational opportunities for residents to increase and maintain green infrastructure on their properties. 

Resilience and Equity 

In addition to addressing resilience and equity issues in each section of the Plan through the Resilience and Equity Framework (discussed above), the city also devotes an entire element to explore specific recommendations. 

Under the Resilience element, the Plan presents the measures that the city has taken to address different aspects of resilience across four different categories: 

  • Climate: Enacting policies that reduce the city’s carbon footprint and adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. The Plan suggests new guidelines for renewable energy standards in the historic district that shield low-income residents from bearing any additional financial burden. 
  • Flooding: Enacting policies that protect the growing number of individuals who will be affected by more frequent and intense flooding. In 2018, Mayor John Tecklenburg and the City Council approved the creation of the city’s first Stormwater Department, which updated the city’s Stormwater Design Standards Manual. The city’s projects past and ongoing include constructing gray and green stormwater infrastructure. 
  • Ecological: Enacting policies that protect the native animals, plants, and ecosystems that define Charleston and the Lowcountry. To prevent development from impacting crucial ecological resources, the city has maintained the UGB. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation is finishing its own Master Plan, which will identify future park needs and new park locations. 
  • Social: Enacting policies that promote health and wellness for all citizens. Social determinants of health– the shaping conditions of daily life– can be addressed by planning policies such as affordable housing, land-use decisions on locations of supermarkets and parks, and transit-oriented development.  

Over the past decade, the City of Charleston has experienced a decline in the number of non-white and low-income residents. With historical planning and real-estate induced inequities and a widening racial wealth inequality, the Plan discusses how the city should find ways to mitigate gentrification and reduce displacement. The Plan highlights how without mitigation, expensive adaptation strategies can leave low-income residents behind, exacerbating disparities and contributing to climate gentrification. As Charleston’s communities face environmental and social challenges, it is critical that the city develops strategies with equity considerations in mind. Throughout the Plan, the city addresses racial and economic inequities and proposes recommendations that prioritize protections and opportunities for historically underserved communities.  

Publication Date: October 12, 2021

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  • City of Charleston, South Carolina

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