Council approves industrial park 5-0

BLYTHEWOOD – After much discussion among town and county officials, the five members of the Blythewood Town Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve zoning for the remainder of a 1,300-acre site that Richland County plans to turn into an industrial park.

The project site, located just west of Interstate 77 with access points in the heart of Blythewood, has spurred controversy because of anticipated traffic congestion and other impacts. But the council members said they and county officials had reached a good compromise in a series of meetings.

“This is the way America should work,” said Mayor J. Michael Ross shortly after the meeting began, referring to the process that he said took into account both localities as well as the concerns expressed by the public. “I’m proud of the town of Blythewood working this way – unlike Washington, D.C.”

The vote took place Oct. 2 in a Wednesday morning special called meeting. It was rescheduled after it had been announced at a prior meeting that the vote would be taken on Monday, Sept. 30. Significantly fewer opponents of the project were in attendance at the Wednesday meeting than had attended previous regularly scheduled meetings on the issue.

Project details are spelled out in a declaration of covenants, conditions and restrictions that includes what town leaders call a key concession – veto power for a town representative (appointed by town council) over several areas of the project. This person will sit on the project’s design review committee along with two people appointed by the county.

“Two members appointed by Richland County and one by the town council. But this member gets a veto authority on eight different line items,” said Town Councilman Bryan Franklin.

He said the veto power is important, as it represents an assurance that Blythewood will have a say in the project as it moves forward. He said the plan agreed upon was a compromise of “mutual respect.”

Richland County Councilman Calvin “Chip” Jackson was in attendance and addressed the town council, expressing confidence that the project as currently conceived would protect the livability of the Blythewood community while building for the future – and that the industrial park would be as good as any anywhere.

“I chair the economic development committee for Richland County Council,” he said, “and in that role and that capacity, I want to make sure that any development that’s occurring anywhere in our county represents the best interest of development, it represents the best interest of our county, it represents the best interest of our citizens and also of our community.”

A couple of audience members also spoke against the project during the public comment portion of the meeting, the final reading for approval of the project which had previously divided the council 3-2.

“A disaster awaits the residents,” warned former town councilman Tom Utroska. “I’ve done traffic planning for 45 years, and this is not well thought out.”

Before voting for approval, the town council members spoke about it in the context of broad issues: Blythewood’s past planning and current growth trajectory, both of which they say dictate this type of development for a site that’s for sale and well-situated in relation to infrastructure and transportation.

Town Councilman Malcolm Gordge said the town’s master plan has included development of the site for a decade – and, as an opportunity and economic climate emerged that enabled a plan to solidify, town officials had to take a hard look at what kind of development would bring the biggest advantage to the town.

“We don’t know what’s going to be within the park itself,” he said, “but with the indications from the economic development council, the plan looks far, far better to me than an intense residential development that could add another 2,000 homes in that area, which would be the worst of all things.”

Town Councilman Larry Griffin echoed the reality: whatever type of development is done on the land – whether business or residential – it will increase traffic. But Griffin, a lifelong Blythewood resident, said ultimately growth has been a good thing.

“This is not perfect,” he said of the plan, “but I want you to understand – you talk about change, and you talk about growth – you’re talking to the wrong person here, because I’ve seen changes and growth that you can’t believe.

“When you say, ‘I want to see Blythewood the way it used to be’ – no, you don’t,” he said. “You want to see Blythewood the way you see it and the way you moved to it. That’s not what it used to be…. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to trust this council that we may be doing the right thing.”

In reference to the traffic issue, Ross said the potential traffic snarl near Exit 27 will be solved by common sense, as both truck drivers and employees who work in the park choose a different entrance and exit point less bogged down by Blythewood commuters accessing the Interstate.

Also, he said, a planned road widening project will include a traffic circle in front of the Cobblestone Park community to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

“This is not going to be Killian Road,” he said. “There’s not going to be car dealerships on these corners. There’s not going to be a Walmart. You can’t put those there. We have ordinances against that.”