Planning Commission Splits on Rimer Pond Road

While the vote ended in a tie, the residents left Monday’s Planning Commission meeting jubilant. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

COLUMBIA (Feb. 9, 2017) – A Richland County lobbyist who said he was hired by Hugh Palmer, the father of Richland County Planning Commissioner Patrick Palmer, addressed the Commission Monday afternoon to convince members to vote to recommend Rural Commercial (RC) zoning on 5.23 acres on Rimer Pond Road. The property is owned by Hugh Palmer. About 70 Blythewood community residents tuned out to beseech the Commissioners to spare their neighborhood from that rezoning. With Patrick Palmer recusing himself, the vote ended in a tie, which means the rezoning request will go forward to County Council without a recommendation for either approval or denial. The residents left the meeting jubilant.

Richland County Council will convene on Feb. 28 to take the first of three votes on the contentious rezoning issue that has been simmering for the better part of three years.

That simmer turned into a boil at times Monday as 34 of the residents streamed to the microphone for more than an hour to voice their opposition to the rezoning.

Lobbyist Boyd Brown of Tompkins, Thompson, Brown Government Affairs in Columbia spoke for Hugh Palmer. Brown, a former member of the S.C. House of Representatives, representing Fairfield County, said he was speaking as one who is familiar with the County’s land use plan for that area.

“We feel as though this (parcel) is tailor-made for Rural Commercial (RC) use,” Brown said. “If you were to take the definition for Rural Commercial (zoning) in the Richland County Land Use Plan, you would feel like it was written primarily for this specific parcel. Rural Commercial zoning was designed to help communities like this.”

Some residents, having boned up on the County’s land use plan during their three-year battle against the Palmers, mocked Brown’s assessment of the land use plan for the area.

“We feel? Who is ‘we’? We are here and we don’t feel,” resident Steven Greenburg shot back at Brown’s comment.

“Contrary to Mr. Brown’s statement, Rural Commercial zoning is not tailor-made for this area,” said resident Jay Thompson. He said county staff seems to be of the opinion that the requested zoning is in compliance with the objectives for commercial uses.

“That’s not correct,” Thompson said. “I hold in my hand a map of future land use and priority investments. If you look at this map, this neighborhood is shown as medium density, not rural. That directly contradicts this proposed zoning for Rural Commercial. It does not fit.

‘The staff reports that the requested rezoning would not be out of character with the existing surrounding development and zoning districts. I would ask staff, anyone, to find another property in this area zoned Rural Commercial,” Thompson said. “You will not find one in any direction.”

Asked by Commissioner Ed Greenleaf if Thompson was correct, Planning Director Tracy Hegler, who participates in the staff report which called for approval of the rezoning request, said, “Yes, that is correct.”

Another common target for residents was the County’s zoning district summary that states that RC zoning is needed to provide commercial services for residents in more isolated agricultural and rural areas.

The Palmers have said the RC zoning is designed for businesses such as pizza restaurants and dry cleaners for the convenience of surrounding residents.

Almost every speaker repeated the crowd’s mantra – “We are not isolated.” “This area is not underserved by commercial.” “We do not need it.” “We do not want it.”

“Within a four-mile radius of my home, there are four pizza restaurants, three dry cleaners, a Dollar Store, a Dollar General, three large grocery stores and at least five service stations,” said LongCreek Plantation resident May Vokaty. “There are plenty of commercial resources available to this area.”

Resident Stacey Young said she had to take time off from work just to be at the afternoon meeting. “It is that important to me.  We don’t need this commercial. I have five boys, and we can order pizza any time of the night. We are not going to go hungry without the proposed commercial.”

“If you have pizza delivery, you are not beyond commercial services,” resident Joe Johnson reminded the Commissioners who, along with the audience, responded with a laugh during an otherwise tense meeting.

On a more serious note, Johnson questioned, “Is the staff who keeps approving this venture familiar with the land use plan?

“And I think Mr. Palmer has made some mistakes with this property which has got him in the position he is in,” Johnson said.

Residents repeatedly reminded Commissioners that nearby commercial zoning would bring crime, congestion, more traffic and commercial lighting that would affect the environment and dark skies they enjoy in their rural neighborhood.

“You are slowly taking away from us what we moved here for,” said Nanette Howerin of Longcreek Plantation.

They also addressed the safety of students who would cross a very busy Longtown Road West to the commercial area from Blythewood Middle after school.

Trey Hair of Rimer Pond Road pointed out that there is no commercial zoning anywhere on the road.

“The only beneficiary to this zoning change will be the applicant who stands to make a large sum of money from the property. We’re asking you to stand with the people you serve. Stand with the community. We’re highly opposed to this zoning and we continue to show up in large numbers to protest. Being rural is our choice,” Hair said.

“The Palmers are the ones who came to Rimer Pond Road 10 years or so ago and changed this parcel from Rural to Residential Medium Density (RS-MD),” Rimer Pond Road resident Ken Queen said. “We didn’t want that, but the Palmers wanted it. They didn’t even come out and meet with anyone in the neighborhood and they have not this time. There is nothing they can put on that property that we don’t already have within five or six miles.”

“We do not want Rimer Pond Road to be anything other than rural residential with schools, homes and churches,” Rhett Sanders told the Commissioners. “The Planning Commission is tasked to oversee the strategic growth of our County to keep the big picture in mind and not make decisions based on personal requests that are not in the interest of the community.”

“I bought my property in 1982” Benny Solton told the Commissioners. “That a single person is doing this to a neighborhood is unbelievable.”

“It’s in your hands now to decide if you’re going to stick up for the people or for a developer, which won’t look good for you. We hope you’re with us,” Adams Road resident Michael Watts told the Commissioners.

While Commissioners Beverly Frierson, Ed Greenleaf and Wallace Brown Sr. did vote with the residents, three Commissioners, David Tuttle, Chairman Stephen Gilchrist and Christopher Anderson, did not. Another three Commissioners were absent.

While there was criticism of staff for its approval of the zoning request and for what residents said was staff’s lack of understanding of the zoning applicability to the land, Commissioner Tuttle took staff’s side saying, “We should not impugn staff. I commend staff.”

“We are to look at this as planners. It (RC) meets our guidelines,” Commissioner Anderson said.

Council will hear the rezoning request at 7 p.m. in Richland Council chambers on Feb. 28.

(Note: An earlier version of the story said the lobbyist said he had been hired by Patrick Palmer.)


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