P.C. Rejects Housing Project

‘Will of the People’ Supersedes Ordinances

BLYTHEWOOD (Nov. 12, 2015) – What was expected to be a short, one-agenda-item Planning Commission meeting Monday evening ended with 1) a scramble by Town officials to first calm, then eject a member of the audience who became emotional while protesting a proposed affordable housing project in the Town Center District, and 2) a senior development manager threatening to bring a legal action against the Town after the Commission voted against approving a site plan for the proposed housing project.

The purpose of the regular monthly meeting was to consider a group development site plan approval for The Pointe, a 56-unit apartment campus planned for downtown Blythewood on 4 acres fronting on Highway 21 behind the Langford-Nord House. The developer of the project is Prestwick Companies of Atlanta, represented by Mark Bincz, Vice President of Engineering with Site Design, Inc. of Greenville and Jody Tucker , CEO of Prestwick.

During the public comment section at the beginning of the meeting, five members of the community spoke against the project which, according to the company, is affordable housing but not Section 8 housing.

“It’s clear that our roadways cannot handle increased traffic and why current zoning would even permit, let alone encourage it, defies all logic,” resident Cynthia Shull told the Commission. “According to the 2015 Congestion Management Plan on the SCDOT’s (Department of Transportation) website, the section of road that would be immediately impacted by the addition of the 56 apartments currently has a grade of ‘E’ (on an A-F scale), which indicates the roadway is significantly congested,” she said. “Adding 56 apartments would only exacerbate this problem.”

Residents: Traffic is the Problem

Danielle Andes and Irene Shepard also spoke about the negative impact of the development on traffic in the town.

Janice Miller spoke passionately and at length about the negatives the development would have on the town’s traffic and pedestrian safety, especially children. She said the Town laws and ordinances should be reviewed to limit this sort of development.

“My main concern,” Miller said, “is multi-family housing on Main Street in the Town Center District. Just because it’s zoned for R-5 housing doesn’t mean we have to develop it for R-5 housing. We need planned development here. We need to do what’s best for Blythewood. We need to go back and amend our zoning ordinances. Go back to our Master Plan.”

Planning Commission Chairman Malcolm Gordge pressed on to discuss concerns brought forward from the October meeting about traffic, storm water management and an incidental question about the qualifications for people obtaining housing at The Pointe.

DOT: Traffic is Fine

Addressing the question about traffic congestion, Binsz told Commissioners that the he had met with representatives of DOT who, he said, made a visual inspection of the site and were OK with the driveway location onto Main Street.

“DOT said a traffic study would not be required and that traffic on the road is currently about 3,600 cars a day, much less than the road can handle,” Binsz said. “DOT is not requiring turn lanes, or improvements of any kind.”

Town Planner Michael Criss read an email from Carol Hamlin, an engineer with DOT that stated, “With regard to potential turn lane improvements along Main Street, we have considered the existing traffic patterns and the scale of the current proposed 56-unit apartment development. It does not appear that any significant delay or safety concerns will be generated by this development.”

Commissioner Ernestine Rogers questioned when, exactly, the visual inspection of the traffic was made. Binsz said he thought it was at peak time of day.

Commissioner Don Sanders spoke up, thanking those who came to speak out on the proposed development.

“You make some excellent comments, but the only statement that was made that I don’t agree with is: ‘You all are just sitting there making decisions that don’t affect you and don’t bother you.’

The Will of the People

That’s incorrect,” Sanders said. “I’m here for one reason only. To look out for the Town of Blythewood and its best interest. Having said that, I know that zoning changes. Traffic changes. But one thing that does not change is the will of the people. And the will of the people was heard loud and clear here tonight. I’d like to make a motion for denial of approval of the site plan and call for a vote on this,” Sanders said.

After a long pause, Gordge said he wasn’t sure whether the Commission was in a position to deny the project and said he would like legal guidance. Gordge asked what the grounds would be for denial.

“Not being an attorney,” Sanders said, “I would say grounds would be the will of the people.”

Tucker rushed to the podium.

“I understand what the Town of Blythewood has planned. It planned (the zoning of) this property well before I got here. You created the ordinance. I didn’t. You can’t look at me as the bad guy. These folks have great comments,” Tucker continued, “and they’re not wrong. But we’ve done nothing wrong. Our project should not be penalized for (the zoning) you planned previously. Going forward you can change your zoning and put overlays in. You can change things. But Greenville tried to change it on us in the middle of us submitting permits. What happened? They went to a lawsuit and it didn’t work out for Greenville.”

Tucker reviewed the company’s various projects (around the country) and said the Mayor of Greenville eventually became a big supporter of the project after it was finished.

Mayor Ross Supports Project

“Mayor Ross of Blythewood wrote a letter of support for this project,” Tucker said. In that letter, Ross said ‘we are committed to working with non-profits and the private sector and support diversified workforce multi-family housing options.’

“You can’t turn us down for something that was done before we got here,” Tucker told the Commission. “We’re willing to work with you to make this happen. I’m asking you to make a decision on what’s right and what the law says.”

Commissioner Buddy Price said he wanted to clarify the Commission’s duties.

“We are to determine if this project and any other projects that come before us meet the criteria established for us,” Price said. “Meet those requirements; that’s what we’re here to determine. Not whether it’s appropriate (for the project) to be there or not.”

At that point Miller, who had spoken against the project earlier, began chastising Price and Gordge specifically and the Commission in general to the point that several Commissioners first asked her to be seated, then to leave.

“You are here for the Town of Blythewood,” Miller shouted back a number of times as she was leaving the meeting room. After leaving and then returning, Miller said, “Thank you Mr. Gordge and Mr. Price for not serving Blythewood,” before leaving a final time.

Town Administrator Gary Parker advised the board, “If the project meets storm water, traffic and other requirements, then you would have no basis for denial.”

“The will of the people overrides any zoning, any time,” Sanders insisted, “and I will vote against anything that’s not the will of the people because this is what’s good for the Town.”

Referring to the developer’s representatives, Sanders said, “These are not bad people. Greenville is a great town and everything is done correctly there, but the people in the Town of Blythewood have said ‘no’ and I’ll vote ‘no’.”

The audience applauded and the Commissioners voted 3-2 to deny approval of the site plan, with Gordge and Price voting against denial.

Re-vote Next Month?

Turner told The Voice after the meeting that the developer would probably ask to meet with the Blythewood Mayor and the Town’s attorney about the matter.

“The City needs to let us know if that was a valid vote,” Tucker said. “If it wasn’t, then we’ll be back at the December Planning Commission meeting for another vote under the terms of what the law allows versus the will of the people. We met all the requirements.”

Tucker said he had no interest in seeking legal remedy.

“I’m interested in the Town of Blythewood following its ordinances and voting based on what they’ve already approved,” Tucker said.

The Planning Commission will meet at 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 7 at the Manor.