Rimer Pond dodges zoning bullet

COLUMBIA – Rimer Pond Road area residents barely dodged another commercial zoning bullet Monday afternoon when the Richland County Planning Commission failed to muster the votes it needed to recommend that County Council approve commercial zoning at the intersection of Rimer Pond Road and Longtown Road West. Commissioners voted 4-4 on the rezoning request. The tie vote means the Commission will not send any recommendation at all on the issue to Council.

It was an uphill battle for the residents who have fought repeatedly, over four years, against as many requests by Hugh Palmer to rezone 5.23 acres on Rimer Pond Road to some level of commercial zoning. Prior to the meeting, County staff had sided with Palmer, recommending approval of the rezoning request, saying the requested Neighborhood Commercial zoning designation complied with the County’s comprehensive land use plan for the area.

But LongCreek resident Joe Johnson said the requested commercial zoning was not compliant with the comp plan which states, on page 197 of the plan, “the NC zoning district is designed to be located within or adjacent to residential neighborhoods where…small neighborhood oriented businesses are useful and desired.”

“That’s your rules,” Johnson told Commissioners. “Is it desired?” he asked the audience.

“No!’ they answered in unison.

More than 20 residents protesting the rezoning addressed Council with passion and information for almost two hours at the public hearing. About 50 residents attended.

Palmer, representing his family’s land which, about a year ago, was listed at $350,000 per acre, said last February that he was requesting commercial zoning because the property was unusable as residential property for which it is zoned – Medium Density Residential (RS-MD).

“It has a traffic signal at the intersection, a cell tower on the property and an access easement to the tower,” Palmer said at the time. “No one wants to live with these things in their yard.”

Palmer had already sold an adjacent 28 acres with 100 lots zoned RS-MD, a zoning he had requested and received in 2008.

But resident Michael Watts suggested on Monday that the Palmers had already made a profit from the land and that the cell tower was there when they bought the property 10 years ago and had it rezoned RS-MD. Let’s look at it as it is. It’s all about the dollar bill,” Watts said.

“The area is growing and changing. Anyone who understands that knows that. Council knows that,” Hugh Palmer told Commissioners Monday.

“It’s very simple,” Patrick Palmer, said, promising no more than a 6,000 square-foot building with four 1,500 square-foot bays with commercial uses that he suggested could include a UPS store, a Subway, a coffee shop and dry cleaner drop-off. “These are uses that are ideal for neighborhoods,” Patrick Palmer said.

“What we have here is like a business with obsolete inventory,” Windermere resident Jerry Rega told Commissioners. “They are buying and selling land and they now have an obsolete inventory and they want you [Commissioners] to bail them out after they made a ton of money from the rest of the property.”

“He asked for and got RS-MD, and he needs to live by that,” Trey Hair of Rimer Pond Road said. He also noted that, “It’s the applicant’s job to show up here today. He could profit from that. I had to take a half day off work today. We are just residents opposing commercial zoning in our area. Let the residents decide what happens to our community not one developer deciding. We don’t want it. We don’t need it.”

That mantra was repeated many times during the meeting by disgruntled residents who said they were tired of fighting the Palmers in an effort to keep the neighborhood character intact.

“I moved here from Ohio and wanted a country feel,” resident David Wallace said. “And that’s what we have today. These proposed changes will impact our community. I left work to be here because it’s important to us. This matters to us. It’s where we live.”

“Commercial is a crime magnet,” Catherine Raynor told Commissioners. “Look at any live TV and you’ll see our Circle K, our BP station, the Dollar Store. Do you want to replicate that two miles around the corner? Once you open the flood gates, you can’t close them,” Raynor said. “I never wanted to come here and speak. We’re grateful for what you do. But it’s different now. Our neighbors are upset, outraged [over the commercial zoning requests] and they are getting worn down,” Raynor said.

“Before we moved from Ashley Hall subdivision to Westlake Farms, I used to sit on the back porch and look at the back side of Hardscrabble Road. Then a gas station was built in back of our house. When we heard the first gun shots, we decided to move out here to avoid such things.”

While both the County planning staff and the Palmers tried to convince the Commissioners that Neighborhood Commercial zoning complies with the comp plan for the Rimer Pond Road area, Hair said the comp plan is out of touch with his neighborhood.

“After the vote in February defeating the last proposal commercial zoning on Rimer Pond Road, Ashley Powell, Manager of Richland County Planning Services, started a series of public workshops to include residents’ input on the county growth plan rewrite. Powell was quoted as saying, “The Land Development Code is the zoning law regulating how land can be used. It’s what punches that comp plan (vision) into action (law). But right now in some areas, like Rimer Pond Road, the people who live there are not liking what the county has planned for their area in terms of zoning,” Powell said.

“We want to protect the character of the neighborhood that the people moved out there for,” Powell said. “We need to amend (the Richland County comp plan) based on the feedback we get from the people.”

But, 10 months after the meetings, there have been no reports on the results of those meetings issued by the County.  Tracy Hegler, Director of Planning and Development for Richland County, told The Voice that no reports would be forthcoming until after the second group of meetings which she said would be held around next February. At that point, the results of the first meetings will be made known and the public can then have further input.

Putting a finer point on why any level of commercial zoning is not right for the Rimer Pond Road area, Benny Sullivan of LongCreek Plantation said Neighborhood Commercial is not much different than General Commercial. Both can have convenience stores with gas pumps, also known as gas stations.

Only one person, besides the Palmers, spoke in favor of the Palmer’s zoning request. Vickie Brooks said she did not know the Palmers, but agreed with everything they said.

“The time is right for a small building. I’d love to see a dry cleaners or Fed Ex. We have all these neighborhoods and we have nothing to serve us,” Brooks said.

Last month, Brooks identified herself as a realtor at a Blythewood Planning Commission meeting where she was applying for commercial zoning on a 2-acre corner lot on Wilson Boulevard in the Dawson’s Pond neighborhood near the end of Rimer Pond Road. She denied planning to sell the land for a service station but said she wanted to bring in a doctor’s or a dental office since there were none in Blythewood. Those Commissioners voted unanimously against that zoning, saying that Blythewood has three doctors’ offices and three dentists’ offices. Brooks has not yet brought the request before Town Council for a vote.

As the meeting wound down and Commissioner David Tuttle moved for the Commissioners to vote to send the request for commercial zoning to County Council with a recommendation for approval, Commissioner Heather Carnes came to the defense of the residents.

“I have sat through many of these [Rimer Pond Road zoning] discussions and I have found this case to be horribly difficult,” Carnes, an attorney, said. “One of the inherent natures of Neighborhood Commercial zoning is that it is inconsistent. It drops itself into residential areas. I used to work in Blythewood and I know this area. I find it unique in that it is nothing but residential with unbelievable commercial all around it,” Carnes said.

“Listening to you guys tonight – and I know what this area is like – I stand opposed to this rezoning. To me, the Blythewood area has created something very unique with the fact that there is no other commercial. It’s partly why I wouldn’t want to live here,” she joked. “I’m a city girl. But I appreciate that you guys love it. It is what it is,” Carnes said.

“I came in today expecting to support this zoning. As I look at Neighborhood Commercial, I appreciate what it does for communities, I think Neighborhood Commercial is a great thing.” she said.

“Even so, in this particular situation, given what Rimer Pond Road is and that there is no commercial zoning for, like, forever, in this area, I will vote against the request for commercial zoning.”

After the residents’ applause and cheering died down, Carnes was joined by commissioners Prentiss McLaurin, Wallace Brown and Karen Yip in voting against the request for commercial zoning.

Voting to recommend commercial zoning on Rimer Pond Road were Beverly Frierson, David Tuttle, Christopher Anderson and Stephen Gilchrist.

County Council will vote on the zoning request on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 6 p.m. in Council chambers, at 2020 Hampton Street, Columbia.