County, District cite ‘Village’ legal issues

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County Council wants several conditions met before agreeing to participate in a school district project to build a subdivision in Winnsboro catering to teachers.

School leaders, however, say they fear delaying action could cause Gorelick Brothers Capital, a Charlotte, North Carolina developer willing to bankroll most of the project, to walk.

At a special meeting Monday, county and school leaders found little common ground regarding the “Teacher Village,” a $3.6 million subdivision the district wants built on property the district currently owns behind the district office off U.S. 321 Bypass.

Dr. J.R. Green, superintendent of the Fairfield County School District (right), argues in favor of the proposed “teacher village” during a special county meeting Monday night. Looking on at left is a County Administrator Jason Taylor. | Michael Smith

The district wants a multicounty business park agreement in place and a seven-year, $600,000 property tax abatement for the developer. Both require County Council approval.

Citing a litany of potential legal issues, county attorney Tommy Morgan called attention to a pending lawsuit challenging a similar project involving multifamily housing in downtown Columbia.

“We don’t know if this case in Richland County is going to be upheld, if it’s going to be overturned. It’s still going. I don’t know,” Morgan said.

Morgan also alluded to a 2010 attorney general opinion that raised further doubts as to whether the county would be protected if similar litigation were filed over the Teacher Village.

“It does give some cause for concern in my mind whether the special source revenue credit agreement would be the best way to accomplish what I understand the school district is wanting to do,” Morgan continued.

Dr. J.R. Green, district superintendent, brushed off concerns about potential litigation.

As to the Columbia case, Green doesn’t think the appeal will succeed, stating that Columbia is moving forward with another housing project targeting law enforcement and teachers.

“Personally I think it is highly unlikely that it is going to be overturned on appeal,” Green said. “Obviously, in Richland County, they have not been deterred by this appeal that has occurred.

“I disagree if the sentiment is that the county doesn’t want to move forward because there is an appeal or there is a case that has been previously judged,” Green continued.

Morgan and Council Chairman Billy Smith also asked if it’s possible for the district to work out its own credit agreement with Gorelick, paying for $600,000 outright, bypassing the county altogether.

William Halligan, an attorney representing the district, said only the county can approve or deny multicounty park agreements. The district cannot do it, he said.

“Nowhere in [the law] do we have the legal right to pay a third party not relating to buildings of the school district,” Halligan said. “We pay teachers, but we can’t buy their food and we can’t pay for their housing.”

Procedural and zoning issues represent added concerns for the county.

Smith said the county hasn’t received any formal requests from Gorelick, only from the Fairfield County Schools’ Education Foundation, a proxy of the school district.

The land also remains in the district’s name, Smith noted.

No site plan has been submitted to the Town of Winnsboro for rezoning, and there has been no request to the Town for rezoning.

“All of that are steps that have to be undertaken, whether it’s by the school district, the foundation or Gorelick Brothers,” Morgan said. “There has to be these steps with regard to the property before it can even be considered by the county whether it needs to be included in a multicounty industrial park.”

“I don’t think that’s accurate,” Green responded. “You’re telling me the property has to be rezoned before it’s considered for a multicounty project.”

Morgan replied by saying the Teacher Village can’t be a Gorelick project when the land is still in the district’s name.

Teacher Village conditions set

Filed in 2016, a Richland County lawsuit that also names Columbia and Fairfield County as codefendants, states that a student housing development was improperly included in another multicounty business and industrial park.

Fairfield County partnered with Richland County and the City of Columbia in that park agreement.

“I had similar concerns about that project and I raised them at the time. Ultimately, Council approved that deal because the developer agreed to indemnification– to pay for any legal fallout,” Smith told The Voice after the meeting. “That’s all I’ve requested on this project to that point, but it seems like we’re being asked to bear all of the risk in this project. We’re being asked to follow the framework from the previous deal in every way except for the indemnification.”

A circuit judge sided with the counties and City of Columbia, though the suit has been appealed to the S.C. Court of Appeals.

“There has been caution presented to us based on the case in Columbia,” Council Chairman Billy Smith said during the meeting. “If we would be the ones to accept the risk for what many of us see as a school district project, then there are some conditions that we’d like to talk about.”

Thumbing through his phone, Smith read a list of conditions he’d like met regarding the Teacher Village:

An agreement with Gorelick to indemnify Fairfield County in the Teacher Village project

An agreement to cover Fairfield’s legal expenses incurred in association with the Teacher Village

A legal description of the Teacher Village property

The Town of Winnsboro agreeing to place the property into the multicounty park since it’s in the town limits

Winnsboro agreeing to rezone the property

“If they don’t rezone the property as requested, it’s over with,” Smith said. “It doesn’t make much sense for us to spend good money on something when we’re not sure whether it has a chance of happening.”

School officials took issue with Smith’s proposed conditions. Green called them “not reasonable,” and voiced concerns that Gorelick Brothers may walk.

“If that’s the takeaway, that’s not reasonable,” Green said of Smith’s conditions. “I don’t know how Gorelick is going to respond to this. The longer this stretches out, the more the likelihood Gorelick pulls out.”

Asked after the meeting about Green’s contention that the conditions being unreasonable, Smith said, “What’s unreasonable is to ask someone else to bear all of the risk for a project that is yours and that primarily benefits you. I realize the potential of this, and I’d like to support it in some way, but I’m not going to allow the County to be the only entity involved accepting risk. If it were our project, I wouldn’t expect the School District to accept all of the risk for it.”

The Teacher Village, as proposed, calls for building up to 70 single family homes on 22 acres behind the district office, starting with 30 homes and building more if the development takes off.

Teachers would be given first priority and would receive a taxpayer subsidized credit of $300, reducing their rent to the $600 to $900 per month range, depending on the home.

District office staff would receive second preference, followed by law enforcement and first responders. Only teachers, though, would qualify for the credit.

School and foundation leaders have said the Teacher Village is vital in recruiting and retaining teachers by providing them with affordable, attractive housing that generally doesn’t exist in Fairfield County.

“People who live in a home are going to stay longer than in an apartment,” said Dr. Sue Rex, chairwoman of the Fairfield education foundation. “This is going to bring a lot of energy to Fairfield County.”

A video of the Nov. 28 meeting in its entirety is available on The Voice’s Facebook page.