Rimer Pond hearing deferred

COLUMBIA – During a Richland County Council public hearing on a request for commercial zoning on Rimer Pond Road Tuesday night, a parliamentary faux pas and a bizarre motion from the Rimer Pond Road area’s own council representative resulted in a confusing deferral to Council’s Feb. 27 meeting.

Michael Watts addresses Richland County Council members Tuesday night.

After an hour into the meeting that included testimony from Rimer Pond Road area residents streaming to the microphone to speak against Hugh Palmer’s request to rezone 5.23 acres on Rimer Pond Road for commercial use, Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson announced the public hearing closed and called on Councilwoman Gwen Kennedy, the representative for Rimer Pond Road, to make a motion.

Kennedy, who in the past has voted against her constituents and in favor of Palmer’s commercial rezoning requests, made a motion that appeared to momentarily stun the audience and council members as well.

“I’ve been listening to everything and I make a motion to deny (the rezoning request),” Kennedy said.

Another council member seconded the motion.

“The motion has been properly made and seconded,” Dickerson said. There was a pause as Kennedy looked toward the audience and appeared to exchange glances with Palmer.

“I’m sorry,” Kennedy said, “I’m making a motion to defer it.”

“You want to remove your, uh…” Dickerson said, turning to Kennedy.

“I want to find out what people in this area want. I’m going to make a motion to defer this to the next meeting, uh, so that I can hear from some more of the residents because I’ve not heard from but a few. I’d like to hear. I move to defer this,” Kennedy said.

Without revisiting the original motion and second as would be required by Roberts Rules, Council passed the deferral 7-3.

“Do you want to have another public hearing?” Tracey Hegler, Director of Planning and Zoning for Richland County, asked Dickerson.

“No, we will not have another public hearing,” Dickerson said.

“Wait,” Hegler said. “You’re not going to have another public hearing?

Dickerson then told a resident that there will be another public hearing, but that no one would be allowed to speak.

While Council would not be required to allow the public to speak at a second public hearing, multiple public hearings are allowed on an issue and could be held at the discretion of Council. A vote can be taken at that meeting without allowing the public to speak if County Council so chooses.

It was the fourth time in as many years that Palmer has requested some type of commercial zoning for the 5.23 acres at the intersection of Rimer Pond Road and Longtown Road West, across from Blythewood Middle School.

When Palmer’s third commercial rezoning request came before Council in February 2017, Kennedy left her seat at the dais during the meeting and followed the Palmers’ lobbyist, Boyd Brown, into the hallway outside the chambers. After about five minutes they returned and Kennedy made the motion in favor of Palmer’s request. She was the only member of Council to vote in favor of the rezoning, which was denied.

Approximately 60 residents from Rimer Pond Road, LongCreek Plantation and Eagle’s Glen neighborhoods attended Tuesday night’s meeting, but only 14 of the 32 who signed up to speak were allowed to address Council since total speaking time on the issue was limited to 30 minutes. The residents’ mantra was repeated by almost every speaker – “We don’t need it. We don’t want it.” None of the residents from the Rimer Pond Road area spoke in favor of commercial zoning on the road which is made up primarily of farms and large acre properties.

“We are extremely opposed to this,” said Michael Watts who said his family has lived on Rimer Pond Road for generations. “Mr. Palmer made a business decision to purchase this property in about 2007 and he has made plenty of money on it. The County even bailed him out on 35 acres of it. So, as a profit motive, he’s got his profit. How about a people motive? Maybe you could do what the people want out there, which is no commercial,” Watts said.

In 2015, the Palmers had the property listed for $350,000 per acre. After The Voice published that information, Patrick Palmer notified the newspaper to say he would no longer be listing the property.

Palmer brought along three supporters, all in the building industry – Jacob Rabon, a civil engineer from Lexington; Bill Flowers, a developer from Columbia and Earl McLeod, with the Columbia Home Builders Association – who spoke to the advantages of commercial development in the rural area.

Palmer‘s son, Patrick, told Council that numerous residents in the Rimer Pond Road area had called to tell him they are in favor of the rezoning, but he said they didn’t want to come out to a public meeting. At the February 2017 meeting, lobbyist Boyd Brown, speaking on behalf of the Palmers, said he had in his possession a petition with 125 signatures of people who supported commercial rezoning on Rimer Pond Road, but none of the alleged supporters showed up at that meeting.

“Richland School District is in favor of this (rezoning),” Patrick Palmer told Council. But LongCreek Plantation resident Jerry Rega countered that claim.

“I spoke with the administrators of both Round Top Elementary and Blythewood Middle School, and they are opposed to this commercial rezoning,” Rega said.

“If the School District supports this commercial zoning, then I would think a representative of the District would have been here to speak in support of it,” resident Michael Lacey said.

Palmers’ three supporters also urged Council to follow the guidance of the County’s planning staff who recommended the rezoning to both the Planning Commission and County Council. The three touted the staff’s professional perspective of the rezoning and their degrees.

“Your planning staff, professionals in the County, that do this for a living and have degrees in this, are in favor of this as well,” Patrick Palmer told council members.

“I urge Council to listen to your planning staff and vote in favor of this commercial rezoning,” developer Bill Flowers said.

“Neighborhood Commercial zoning was, in fact, developed for just this type of development,” McLeod said, urging Council to follow the County’s comp plan (Comprehensive Planning Guide) that he said serves as a road map for future development.

But several of the residents said the comp plan for future growth in the Rimer Pond area is out of sync with what the area is.

“We’ve been coming down here for 25 years telling you want we want and it never makes its way into the comp plan,” resident Michael Watts said.

Rega, a resident of LongCreek Plantation, also addressed the County’s comp plan, waving his copy in the air.

“The comp plan says, specifically, that it is not intended to provide site level guidance,” Rega said. “I’m tired of people coming from outside our area claiming to know what we need,” Rega said, addressing Palmers’ Columbia and Lexington supporters from the building industry.

“I moved here for the rural setting. It’s peaceful. It’s nice. It’s where we live. We simply have no need for commercial conveniences in our neighborhood,” Eagles Glen resident Chris Henchy said.

“We don’t need anything but for that corner to stay a cell phone tower,” West Lake Farms resident Elizabeth Mull said. “Please don’t let this go forward. We love where we live. We don’t need commercial coming any closer.”

Representative Joe McEachern also spoke to the quality of life the residents enjoy in their community and urged Council to consider that when they vote.

But Hugh Palmer, who was granted his request to be allowed to have his named moved down the speaker sign-up sheet which gave him the advantage of having the last word of all the speakers, encouraged Council to vote for his commercial rezoning request, saying the area is changing.

“Whether folks in the area desire that or not, the area is changing,” Hugh Palmer said.

The next public hearing on the commercial rezoning request will be held in council chambers at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 27. To request an emailed packet for that meeting, call 803-576-2174 the week prior to the meeting.