County sides with Rimer Pond residents

BLYTHEWOOD – Rimer Pond Road and LongCreek Plantation area residents sat stunned for several seconds Tuesday evening after Richland County Council voted quickly and unanimously, 10-0, to deny a commercial zoning request the residents have fought for the last four years.

The residents had anticipated this would be their most difficult fight. Their own council representative, Gwendolyn Kennedy, wasn’t backing them. She was the only council member to vote against them last year.  Worrisome, too, this was the first time the residents would not be allowed to address council about their concerns prior to the vote.

The Rimer Pond Road case was first on the docket and things moved quickly once the residents arrived and took their seats, almost filling the 140-seat chamber.

As Council Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson gaveled the meeting to order Tuesday evening, there was an elephant in the room – Kennedy’s seat at the dias was empty. The residents were puzzled what that would mean for them.

But the palpable clue that the night would be theirs came soon from Councilman Chip Jackson, a Councilman who had come to Blythewood to hear their concerns prior to the December meeting.

“In the absence of the District 7 representative, I’d be willing to make a motion for the purpose of discussion,” Jackson said. He followed the second of his motion with words that hung in the air, savored by the residents.

“My motion is to deny,” Jackson said, referring to Hugh Palmer’s request to rezone 5.23 acres at the intersection of Rimer Pond Road and Longtown Road West from Medium Density Zoning (MD-RS) to Neighborhood Commercial (NC).

“I feel strongly about this situation and how the process is working. I believe that the process for approving zoning changes is flawed and needs to have its guidelines reworked. I shared these comments with Ms. Hegler (Director of Richland County Planning and Development Services) and she’s indicated that in the code rewrite, they are going to do that, but in the interim, I want to state my views and concerns.”

Of the several concerns Jackson addressed about the zoning process, he said it does not accommodate and weigh community support and non-support for any zoning requests. He also said the process does not accommodate support or nonsupport by the school district if properties are affected by a zoning request.

Because these and other processes are not in place, Jackson said, “we have situations like this one tonight in which Council is being asked to make difficult decisions without the kind of input that I believe is critical and fair. Because of that, I cannot make a decision without those levels of involvement and participation,” Jackson said.

Councilman Jim Manning became eloquent in his comments.

“I hate to vote against business development in this county.”

“I hate to vote against someone selling their property to make money.”

“I hate to vote against businesses opening because somebody may rob them.”

“I hate to think a county council would get in to the area of determining if certain businesses are needed.”

“I hate to think we would do things to stifle growth that helps to financially support our school districts.”

“I hate to think our staff spent so much time and energy to create a comprehensive plan and we would disregard it.”

“I hate to think that the owner has adjusted the request based on what they have heard at public hearings previously in chambers in the past.”

“However, when I saw the number of people that showed up the Tuesday night before Christmas and have continued in their efforts to communicate with me as a council member through 100s of emails over the course of a couple of months and repeated that again, I have to go with the power of the people,” Manning said.

Councilman Bill Melanowiski weighed in on whether the Richland County Planning Commission’s tie vote (as in the Rimer Pond Road case) should be interpreted as no recommendation at all or as a recommendation of denial of the zoning request.

“In commenting on [Richland County Planning Director] Tracy Hegler’s response regarding the tie vote of the Planning Commission, if we have a tie vote on Council, it is a denial of the request. So why wouldn’t the same rules apply to the Planning Commission’s tie votes?” Melanowski asked.

Dickerson then called for the vote on the motion to deny. Except for the absent Kennedy, the vote was unanimous for the residents.

According to the rules of Richland County Council, Palmer cannot bring a new Neighborhood Commercial zoning request for the property to Council for a year.

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