Council sends Red Gate back to PC

BLYTHEWOOD – Approximately 60 residents filled the Blythewood Town Council chambers Monday night in Doko Manor to protest myriad aspects of a proposed rezoning of 143 acres, referred to as the Red Gate property, located along Blythewood Road between Syrup Mill and Muller Roads. The property lies across Syrup Mill Road from Cobblestone Park and in an area of horse farms and large acre residential properties.

The rezoning was recommended to Town Council for approval by the Planning Commission on June 3.

Originally zoned PDD (Planned Development District) in 2007 under the jurisdiction of Richland County, the property was subsequently annexed into the Town of Blythewood as a PD (Planned Development) zoning designation. That PD, which is still in place, allows for 232 single family units, 300 multi-family apartment units and 36 acres of general commercial.

Before it was developed, the property went into foreclosure, and is currently owned by Arthur State Bank. Hoping to now develop the property, developer Harold Pickrel has requested an amendment to the property’s current zoning map that would actually reduce the density – from 232 to 138 single family homes, from 36 to 28 acres of commercial use and eliminate the 300 multi-family dwellings.

But even that density seemed, Monday evening, to be a world away from what surrounding rural residents said they feel is appropriate for the area.

Fifteen of those neighbors attending the meeting came to the microphone to ask council to send the rezoning request back to the planning commission for a re-do that would be more in character with rural properties in the area. In general, they called for ‘smart planning’ that would better transition the housing development to the rural area around it. Specifically, they asked for minimum 20,000 square foot lots, thus reducing the housing density further than 138 homes. They also asked for the addition of buffering around the development to protect the privacy of the surrounding properties.

George Walker

“We’ve been blessed with [large acre neighborhoods] like Surrey Woods, High View Farms, Camry Farms, Birch Springs and Center Creek that value trees and set the stage to create the kind of environment that makes people want to keep coming back,” Persimmon Fork Road farm owner George Walker said, addressing council.

“We aren’t opposed to development and we appreciate that this developer has already made concessions in regard to multi-family units,” Walker said. “We aren’t trying to drive him [Pickrel] away, but we are trying to come up with a plan that is farsighted and works for everybody.”

Walker reminded council that they had set a 20,000 square-foot minimum on lots in the town, and he urged them to honor that in the PD as well.

“Backing homes on 10,000 square-foot lots up to a property that the town annexed under a Rural (RU) designation is overly aggressive,” Walker said.

Another Persimmon Fork resident, Attorney Stuart Andrews, said he counted 15 areas of discretion in the project that are open to the developer.

“He could make modifications on the plans that are presented with regard to boundaries and actually in changing the density of houses without any input from town council, the planner or the community,” Andrews said. “I suggest having a thorough study of this proposal before the plans are adopted, and then have the plan and the rezoning meet [requirements] that would be consistent with the rural character of the community.”

John Moore, a resident of Cobblestone Park and a former planning commissioner, said the plan was one of the poorest he had seen.

“There’s no mention of price points or the homes’ square footage,” Moore said. “Why are the 10,000 square foot lots even in this document?” Moore asked. “There should be a traffic study before the development is approved and it should be conducted during the school year when school is in session,” he said.

Rue, who owns a horse farm in the area, asked council to protect her “little slice of heaven.”

Mayor J. Michael Ross defended the planning commissioners’ decision to recommend approval of Pickrel’s rezoning request, noting that the current zoning allowing 232 homes, 36 acres of commercial and 300 apartment units could be built today without town council’s consent.

“The commissioners probably thought they were doing a pretty doggone good thing to get the 300 apartments taken out and get some 20,000 square foot lots,” Ross said. He also said he empathized with the residents.

“I thank all of you for coming, and I hear your passion,” Ross told the crowd, “and I understand it. I’m just like you. I used to live on Dennis Lane. So if I was there now and this [development] was coming in, I would be one of you sitting out there, too. But this land has been there since 2007, and it has been zoned so that if [a developer] came in, he could build on 5,000 and 8,000 square-foot lots. That’s what’s approved right now,” Ross said. “So there is a risk that if somebody else came in here and wanted to develop this property as it is now, then that is how it is zoned. This requested zoning is a new PD. The old PD that was established in 2007 is still on the books,” he added.

“That being said, we don’t want that either, so we hear you. I do think a lot of the things you said are very important – a traffic study before action is taken, traffic and other safety issues,” Ross said.

Council voted unanimously to send the rezoning request back to the planning commission for reconsideration.