Judge Rejects ‘Will of the People’

COLUMBIA (Dec. 17, 2016) – The ‘will of the people’ has been soundly rejected by 5th Circuit Court Judge L. Casey Manning as a reason for the Blythewood Planning Commission’s refusal on Nov. 9 to approve a site plan for a low-income housing project on Main Street in the center of town.

Eppes & Plumblee of Greenville, attorneys for the developer of The Pointe housing project, Prestwick Development of Atlanta, filed a legal action on Nov. 23 and an amendment with stronger language on Nov. 30 asking the Court to: 1) overturn the Commission’s Nov. 9 vote; 2) mandate its members to approve the development plan and 3) require the Town to pay attorneys’ fees, court costs and such other relief as the court deems just.

Judge Manning “concluded that the stated ground for refusal is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion and the decision of the Planning Commission must be reversed.”

The court ordered the reversal of the decision of the Planning Commission and that the Zoning Administrator of the Town provide his letter of approval of the site plan as submitted by the Plaintiffs. But the judge did not order the Town to pay for Prestwick’s attorneys’ fees and costs, stating instead that, “This action is dismissed with the parties to each bear their own respective attorneys’ fees and costs.”

“It is undisputed that the site plan submitted by the Plaintiffs conformed in all respects with the Town’s Zoning Ordinance and Land Development Regulations,” the ruling stated. “Nonetheless, the Commission voted to refuse approval of the site plan. The only reason articulated by the Commission in voting to refuse approval was that the project ran afoul of the ‘will of the people’.”

Commissioner Don Sanders, who made the motion to deny approval of the site plan, said he was moved to do so by a number of residents who spoke passionately against the housing project because they felt that particular location would increase the already congested traffic in downtown Blythewood and that the low-income homes could impact the resale value of surrounding homes.

Councilman Bob Mangone, who has since resigned his Council seat because he said he will be moving away, said at the Nov. 17 Town Council workshop that he was dismayed at the bigotry, bias and racism displayed by the residents who opposed the project at the Nov. 9 Planning Commission meeting. Mangone, who did not attend that meeting, told The Voice that he considered the residents’ complaints about traffic and low cost housing to be veiled racism. But two of the three Commissioners who voted against the project were African-American as were several of the residents who spoke out against the development.

In response to Mangone’s comments, the Oakhurst Home Owners Association president, Michael Rescigno, told The Voice, “Mr. Mangone is spinning it the way he wants it to sound. He lives in Cobblestone on the other side of the town. He doesn’t have to sit in our traffic. I guess he did not considered it veiled bias when some residents of Cobblestone, including himself, objected to the traffic congestion and lower home values that they feared would result from D.R. Horton building in that neighborhood.”

When contacted for comment on the ruling, Commissioner Marcus Taylor, who voted against the site plan, said he feels something is terribly wrong when a community can’t carry out how they want their community to grow or not grow.

“This really surprises me,” Taylor said.

Taylor also said he was surprised that the town’s attorney Jim Meggs did not let members of the Commission know that the suit was going to be heard on Nov. 11.

“I knew nothing about the court date until I received an email from Mr. Meggs dated Tuesday, Dec. 15. By that time it was over.”

In that email, Meggs wrote, “The conclusion of the Court brings into clear focus the need to adhere to the Town’s ordinances relating to land development without regard to unsubstantiated fears or considerations that are not demonstrated by the record (or properly before) before the Commission.”

Meggs stated further, “I would recommend that comment, if any, be respectful of the Court’s Order and that we move on with the project review in a calm and deliberate manner.”

“We respect the Court’s ruling and will comply promptly,” Mayor J. Michael Ross said in an email to The Voice. “The project will now be reviewed by our Board of Architectural Review and we hope a tasteful addition to the town will result.”

Ross said he is going to ask the town attorney to offer additional training sessions to the Town’s boards and commissions.

“This will aid all of us in understanding the legal framework for site plan review and other land planning decision making,” Ross said.

Next stop for Prestwick Development will be the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) on Monday, where the developer will submit its plans for approval of 13 variances needed for a certificate of appropriateness, the Town’s Planning Consultant Michael Criss said.

“The BAR has complete authority over the building’s appearance,” Criss told The Voice. “That could not happen until the site plan was approved by the Planning Commission or the Court.”

Planning Commissioners Don Sanders and Ernestine Rogers, who both voted against the site plan could not be reached for comment at press time.

The BAR will meet at Town Hall at 7 p.m., Dec. 21.