Rimer Pond faces an uphill battle

Town Councilman Eddie Baughman lends his support to almost 200 community members who oppose commercial zoning on Rimer Pond Road. They met at the Windermere Club to help their County Council representative Gwendolyn Kennedy understand their plight. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – Almost 200 residents in the Rimer Pond Road, LongCreek Plantation and Eagles Glen neighborhoods showed up, many wearing red in solidarity, at the Windermere Club last week to express to their County Council representative the myriad reasons they do not want commercial zoning on Rimer Pond Road.

Columbia resident Hugh Palmer has requested Neighborhood Commercial zoning for 5.23 acres his family owns across from Blythewood Middle School. Neither Palmer nor his son Patrick attended the meeting. Patrick Palmer, who recently resigned after serving 12 years on the Richland County Planning Commission, actively promotes the rezoning request and had the property listed with his real estate company two years ago for $3.5 million.

Richland County Councilwoman Gwendolyn Kennedy, who represents the area where the commercial zoning is requested, did attend and heard two hours of impassioned pleas from residents. Blythewood Town Council member Eddie Baughman and Mayor J. Michael Ross also attended and called on Kennedy to keep commercial zoning out of the area.

Asked at one point by Jerry Rega, the meeting organizer, if there was anyone at the meeting who wanted to speak in favor of commercial, no one did.

Patrice Matthews said a convenience store could be in her back yard.

While the residents were of one accord, they had a tricky course to navigate. Although Kennedy represents the area, she is the only one of the 11 County Council members who voted against the residents last year when the issue came before Council.

Until this meeting, Kennedy has not accepted or responded to invitations to meet with the residents. Many residents who emailed Kennedy said they never got an answer. Kennedy confirmed at the meeting that she leaves that to her 10-year-old grandson.

Speaker after speaker told Kennedy they did not need or want commercial conveniences brought into their area.

At one point, Kennedy asked the incredulous audience, “Have these thoughts been expressed previously?”

“Once this property is zoned commercial of any kind, one of the criteria for future zoning will be, ‘Commercial zoning is next door or close by.’ Then you have to consider it,” one speaker said to Kennedy. “And the properties on the corners around this property are just waiting.”

LongCreek Plantation resident Tracy Courson handed out pages of annual security statistics compiled by the Richland County Sheriff’s office that show how students under 17 are more likely to be involved in incidents involving the police when schools, even elementary schools, in proximity to commercial entities.

Examples of schools not located next to commercial entities include Blythewood Middle School with 7 such incidents and Round Top Elementary with 14 incidents. Examples of schools that are next to or across the street from commercial entities include Sandlapper (52 incidents), Dentsville Middle (91 incidents) and Rice Creek Elementary (67 incidents).

LongCreek Estates resident Patrick Whiddon rattled off the numbers of murders, shoplifting and robberies that occurred at the Sharpe Shoppe, Domino’s and Circle K, all in the Lee Road/Longtown Road commercial area; as well as crimes committed at  commercialized corners on Hardscrabble with Spinx, CVS and Walgreens.

“I work in law enforcement,” said one attendee, “and more crimes happen in areas with commercial buildings.”

“While Mr. Palmer says gas stations are not allowed under Neighborhood Commercial zoning, which is the zoning he is requesting for the property across from Blythewood Middle School,” Woodlake Farms resident Shannon Fields said, “convenience stores with gas pumps are allowed. It’s the same thing.”

“This property that Mr. Palmer wants to zone commercial is in our back yard,” Patrice Matthews said. “Once you bring commercial zoning next to homes, you open the gate for other things besides homes, churches and schools to come in to our neighborhood. It’s a slippery slope. I’m nervous about it.”

One Coatsbridge resident who said the Palmers’ property borders her property said her family is military and her husband is deployed.

“My children and I are there by ourselves for long periods and I would not feel safe living next to a convenience store,” the woman said, her voice trembling. “This is not what we want for our family or our community. You were elected to help provide safety for us, take care of us. If you vote for this commercial zoning, you are not taking care of us.”

Another woman pointed out that there are many empty commercial buildings strewn about the outskirts of the neighborhood, and that more commercial businesses are not needed.

“We don’t want another Hardscrabble nightmare on Longtown Road,” Mary Hoffman said. “There are already many empty stores and offices nearby. We don’t need commercial zoning out here. We love that it’s still semi-rural, and we want to keep it that way,” Hoffman said.

Blythewood Councilman Eddie Baughman, who also serves as Mayor pro tem, said commercial development on Rimer Pond Road would not improve the quality of life for anyone in the room.

“These folks’ commercial needs are provided for in Blythewood, the Sandhills, on Killian Road and Hardscrabble. We, as the Town of Blythewood, support these residents. They don’t want or need this proposed commercial zoning,” Baughman said as he was drowned out by thunderous applause.

Scott Galloway asked Kennedy what the decision maker will be for her when she votes.

“I base my decision on how it [commercial zoning] will affect the community and how it will benefit Richland County,” Kennedy said. She said the County staff had shown her the feasibility of going ahead with Palmer’s rezoning and what needs to be done in the area.

Asked how the commercial zoning would benefit the county, Kennedy said she would hear what County Zoning Administrator Geonardo Price had to say on that at a separate meeting. Pressed for an answer, Kennedy said the things that would be good for the county were written on a paper she held in her hand.

When asked to reveal what things were on the paper, Kennedy declined to answer.

Asked if she had heard from any residents in the affected area who were in favor of the commercial zoning requested by Palmer, Kennedy was hesitant, then said she had not.

“You have the chance to do the right thing and vote for the people or you have the chance to vote for the landowner who stands to make $3.5 million,” Hair said to Kennedy.

“I encourage the community to flood County Council members with emails every day,” Ross said after thanking Kennedy for her attendance. “Do it over and over, telling them that you don’t want, don’t need commercial zoning out here. It just does not fit.”

Because Kennedy waited until after the residents had spoken to defer the vote on the matter during a County Council public hearing on Dec. 19, residents will be in the unique position of not being allowed to address Council prior to its first vote on the requested commercial zoning during the Tuesday, Feb. 27 meeting.

“That is a huge blow to our efforts,” Hair said. “But all the council members except Ms. Kennedy voted with us last year and, really, Council has been with us every time this issue has come before them. They have never let us down, and we are trusting that they will be with us again, and Ms. Kennedy, too.”

The commercial zoning request will come before County Council on Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., in Council Chambers in the County building at Harden and Hampton Streets. The agenda and packet for the meeting should be available from the County the week prior to the meeting. To obtain a copy of the agenda and the entire meeting packet via email, call Tommy Delage at 576-2172 or email him at [email protected] or call 576-2190.