PC tie vote fails to recommend industrial zoning

County’s $26M Blythewood Land Purchase Hinges on Rezoning of 1,300 Acres

BLYTHEWOOD – In a cliff hanger vote Monday night, the Blythewood planning commission failed in its effort to make a recommendation to town council regarding a request from Richland County to rezone 163 acres west of I-77 to Limited Industrial Two (LI-2) zoning. The three parcels that make up the 163 acres are currently zoned Development District (D-1).

The 163 acres are part of 1,300 acres that Richland County is proposing to purchase for about $26 million for use as an industrial park it has dubbed ‘Blythewood Industrial Park.” Three years ago, Blythewood council rezoned about 600 of the 1,300 acres from LI-1 zoning to LI-2 at the county’s behest. Approximately two-thirds of the 1,300 acres is located in the town limits of Blythewood and one-third in Richland County.

Because the vote ended in a 3-3 tie, the motion by Commissioner Rich McKendrick to recommend approval of the rezoning failed and the issue will now go forward to council with no recommendation for or against the rezoning.

McKendrick’s motion followed a motion by Commissioner Ed Kesser to defer the issue until town officials could sit down with Richland County officials and determine what he called appropriate restrictions and traffic patterns for the park that would be beneficial to Blythewood.

That motion died for lack of a second.

Cobblestone resident Philip Martin holds the schematic of the planned industrial park (see below) as he questions proposed traffic patterns into the industrial park that would affect the proposed traffic circle on Blythewood Road at the entrance to Cobblestone Park. | Barbara Ball

Tim Duerr, Manager of Research for the County’s Economic Development Department, addressed the rezoning Monday night, saying the county has been working to bring an industrial park to this site for several years.

“This is one of the last untapped labor-draw areas in the state for OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers),” Duerr said. “If this is not developed, there are two other counties that will capitalize on it.”

A statement released by Richland County simultaneously with the Planning Commission meeting said the proposed industrial site is one of the largest in the area and would give the county a competitive advantage in attracting big-name companies.

Duerr said the park, as proposed, would accommodate 5.9 million square feet of office and class A technology and manufacturing space. The press release went further, saying the Blythewood Business Park could be transformative for the Columbia region – creating jobs, providing controlled growth and increasing tax revenue.

Ed Parler, the town’s Director of Economic Development, said that while he believes the industrial park is the highest and best use for the property, he pointed out that only the county would benefit from the tax revenue, since the Town of Blythewood does not have a millage.

The statement issued by Richland County said the park has been 20 years in the making. Lucent Technology considered it for a premier campus beginning in about 1999.

“For reasons not related to the site, the project did not advance, but the state and region knew that this was an asset that should be pursued when the time was right,” the statement said. “The right time arose several years ago and the Richland County Economic Development Office began working to gain control of the property and perform the critical due diligence necessary to evaluate the merits of the site…the site remains a premier location for businesses and industry because of rapid residential growth in Northeast Columbia, robust infrastructure, availability of large tracts of land and success of other business and industrial parks in and around Blythewood. It is accessible from two interchanges on Interstate 77,” according to the statement.

Duerr said the park is fully master planned, incorporating green spaces, natural areas and large buffers between it and the Ashley Oaks residential neighborhood.

Kesser asked why the county prefers LI-2 zoning over LI-1 for the proposed industrial park.

“The LI-2 zoning district allows a wider variety and greater intensity of manufacturing uses than the LI-1 zoning district,” Town Administrator Brian Cook said.

It is those more intense uses that Kesser and several citizens expressed concern about Monday night.

“You open it up to LI-2 and you’re opening it up to lots of kinds of manufacturing,” Kesser said.

Attorney Stuart Andrews, who lives in the Middlefield Lane area, was one of seven members of the community who addressed the commissioners.

“There is not general opposition to the park from my neighbors if it has lots of green space and heavy buffers,” Andrews said. “But I would urge you to exercise care about many of the uses listed. Let’s not just open the door to everything. Some of those allowed [uses], we don’t consider good neighbors – textile mills, steel fabrication, wood product manufacturing, copper recovery, sheet metal, small arms manufacturing, aircraft manufacturing …”

Andrews suggested the zoning content of LI-2 should be changed to eliminate the more intense manufacturing uses.

“To be a first class project, it has to have a first class process,” Andrews said. “Richland County has not been open with you. At the January, 2019 county council retreat, Jeff Ruble, Director of Richland County’s Office of Economic Development, was a lot more specific and informative than they have been in either of their presentations to you,” he told the commissioners. “It’s really a disservice. At the retreat, Ruble identified the Blythewood Industrial Park as the signature project for Richland County for the last 5-10 years. And it’s going to be in our back yards.”

The issue was tabled by a 4-2 vote in July after commissioners and the public complained that while the county’s economic development staff had presented detailed plans for the industrial park to town council in executive session, it had failed to adequately apprise the commissioners and public of those details.

Commission Chairman Donald Brock asked Town Administrator Brian Cook to pull Ruble’s retreat speech up on the overhead screen. In the 12-minute clip, Ruble likened the prospects of the park to Volvo – a company with 4,000 employees in two million square feet of office space.

“If we’re looking at six million square feet of office space

[in the Blythewood Industrial Park]

, we could be looking at even more employees,” Andrews said. “You can’t have that kind of impact on an area without it effecting everywhere else. We want to be involved in the process. We think it’s important to be at the table.”

Andrews said he wants the town government to look at ways to protect the community’s interest.

“The property should not be rezoned, then have negotiations about restrictive covenants afterwards,” he said. Andrews also recalled the incentive-rich Mack Truck deal in Winnsboro.

“After all the incentives were used up, Mack Truck walked away. I understand that Richland County would like to have an ideal list of recruitment targets. But if we change the zoning and then try to restrict covenants, Richland County doesn’t have to participate,” Andrews said.

Duree insisted that the kind of manufacturing the county wants to recruit is smart, clean manufacturing with high paying, technical jobs.

“All these jobs are what most communities are trying to recruit,” Duree said. “

 “Industrial parks can be done in a first class way if that expectation is built in to it,” Andrews said. “Let’s not chase industry we don’t want.”

Sandy York of Ashley Oaks neighborhood questioned whether the alternative to the industrial use of the 1,300 acres would be another 3,000 homes.

“Get the town’s tax base up first, then a commitment from Richland County,” Roberta (Bobbie) Young said. “We have to make sure the rules and regulations are in place.” Young said she would like to see the commission slow the process down for now.

“I’m in favor of LI zoning, but before I’m ready to commit to a specific zoning,” Kesser said, “I think there needs to be some more work done on the front end with regard to convenants, restrictions, traffic, etc. I’m fearful that if we don’t, we’ll get in a position where, yes, we go to the table, but we’re not the 800 pound gorilla here in Blythewood.”

An unidentified woman said she moved to Blythewood from Summerville, about 10 miles from the Volvo plant.

“You would not believe the explosion of houses and road deterioration, four-story storage units on every corner and houses all over the place. Please, be careful in making a decision that could turn Blythewood into Summerville,” she said. “Backed up traffic at 9 and 10 in the morning and at 2 in the afternoon.”

After Kesser’s motion failed to get a second, Rick McKendrick made a stand for the rezoning.

 “I think there’s a level of comfort doing nothing. But until we rezone this, to a zoning it is contiguous with and that Richland County has spent time and treasure studying,” McKendrick said, “I think there is a flip side to ‘pump the break’ and ‘make sure we have a seat at the table.’ We have a seat at the table. This is a fantastic opportunity that might take 30 to 40 years to build out. But if we don’t rezone the property, we might be here a year from now fending off D.R. Horton that wants to put a lot of houses here.”

“So I’m going to make the motion to recommend approval of the rezoning,” he said.

The nays rolled out first – Erica Page, Ed Kesser and Sloan Griffin. The yays came from the other end of the table from Brock, Derrek Pugh and McKendrick.

Town Council will take the first of two votes on the rezoning on Monday, Aug. 6, at The Manor.