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Flooding permeates City Council meeting

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Flooding was the focal point in Charleston City Council chambers Tuesday night, with long discussions on the city’s strategic plan, financing drainage solutions and an accusation that the mayor was using the City Council meeting to make a campaign speech.

This was the first City Council meeting since Mayor John Tecklenburg’s State of the City address, in which he call flooding “the existential threat to our city.”

Initial arguments came during the Committee on Ways and Means meeting, which takes place immediately prior to the City Council meeting. The Committee on Ways and Means has the same members as City Council but is chaired by District 1 Councilmember Gary White Jr. instead of the mayor.

A major sticking point for committee members was the approval of a construction contract with Conti Construction Inc. for $51. 9 million to complete phase four of the Spring-Fishburne Drainage Project.

The proposal was that $39 million of financing would come from the State Infrastructure Bank and $8.5 million would come from the King Street Gateway tax increment financing district. The remaining balance of $18.4 million would come from the city’s drainage fund. The account would still have enough money to fund all current drainage projects in the city, but no new projects would be able to get funding from the drainage fund until 2023.

“I’m kind of leaning toward supporting this contract with this stuff, but I know that I’m going to have to go to my constituents and everybody else — ‘Be ready, we’ve got no money to do anything else,’ ” said District 11 Councilmember William Moody Jr.

At the end of phase four, according to the city’s senior engineering project manager Steve Kirk, the city will have “a fully-functional gravity system” to drain the Septima Clark Parkway. The final phase of the project, phase five, would build a pumps in the system to actively move the water out of the system, but the project has a $30 million to $40 million gap in funding for that final phase.

“Without the pump station, the impact of this tunnel system is minimal at best, as a gravity station alone,” White said. He added, “I think it’s become abundantly clear that although phase four creates a gravity system that’s better than what we have today, it’s clearly not what the $100-plus million project was intended to do, which was phase five.”

District 9 Councilmember Peter Shahid Jr. criticized the drainage project for becoming “too big to fail” without City Council being aware that additional funding was necessary.

“We need to have communication with our public service committee so that we get regular updates on this project and all other major projects,” Shahid said. “It should be a regular policy that it comes before committee, we know what’s going on and … when we get a question about overruns, we get an answer about overruns, and we’re told about this stuff in advance so that 10 years down the road or four years down the road or three years down the road, we’re not blindsided by a project that’s too big to fail, and we’re caught with the price tag on this thing, and we’ve got to pay the bill.”

After over an hour of discussion, the committee voted to approve the contract with the caveat that the public service committee receive regular updates on the drainage project and that other funding sources be considered for the project if they can be found. Tecklenburg said Gov. Henry McMaster has told the mayor that he is committed to finding more funding to help Charleston deal with flooding.

The committee also approved a memorandum of understanding between the Historic Charleston Foundation and the city for the Dutch Dialogues, a project to bring together national and international flooding experts to develop and design drainage solutions akin to those found in the Netherlands. The program will cost a total of $425,000.

Though city staff asked the committee to approve $225,000 for the Dutch Dialogues, which Tecklenburg has been a strong proponent of, the committee only approved $125,000 because of concerns from committee members that flooding is an issue that has been studied enough.

“The Dutch Dialogues, as much as I like them, are just another study,” said District 2 Councilmember Kevin Shealy, adding, “We can’t afford another study until we start moving forward on the studies we’ve completed already.”

The ways and means meeting is typically scheduled to last for 30 minutes but ended up at triple that amount of time because of protracted discussion on the construction contract, requiring the committee to vote to extend its meeting time and delay the start of City Council.

When the City Council meeting did get started, flooding came up at almost every turn. First, with the adoption of the Sea Level Rise Strategy Report, an update to the city’s 2015 report and the document from which Tecklenburg presented much of his State of the City address. Then, with approval of sending amendments to the Stormwater Design Standards Manual to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Developers Council for approval.

The final hour of the meeting was dedicated to giving first reading to an ordinance that would increase the city’s freeboard requirement from one foot to two feet, effective Aug. 1. Any new construction or renovation that exceeds 50% of the property’s value would have to comply with the new requirement that would set a minimum of two feet above the standard set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The ordinance ended up passing, but not before District 7 Councilmember Perry Waring voiced strong concerns about the burden that increasing the freeboard requirement could impose on residents.

The city already requires one foot of freeboarding and residents can apply for a variance if they choose, but Waring pointed to the fact that variances are mainly given to properties on the peninsula.

Tecklenburg defended the increased requirement, saying that the city is trying to address the long term effect of flooding and sea level rise.

“The whole point of this is to reduce the flood damage and claims that are occurring in our city,” he said. “And long term we’re going to do that by building higher. We’ve got sea level rising; we’ve seen flooding occur over the last four years. Long term, we’re going to have less damage, less claims if we build higher.”

Waring, however, interrupted Tecklenburg’s defense.

“Mr. Mayor, Mr. Mayor,” Waring said. “That’s a campaign speech. That’s a campaign speech.”

Tecklenburg rejected Waring’s criticism, and discussion of the topic continued for another 10 minutes.

Waring, Moody and District 10 Councilmember Harry Griffin voted against passing the ordinance. The regulation must receive second and third reading before being ratified.

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