RC planning commission holds meeting without the public

Bender: The Meeting is Illegal and a ‘Do-Over’ is Warranted

COLUMBIA – In a meeting Monday afternoon that turned out not to be accessible to the public, the Richland County Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend rezoning a 15.14 acre parcel on Rimer Pond Road from Rural (RU) to Low Density Residential (RS-LD) for a housing development proposed by developer Kevin Steelman.

Due to COVID restrictions, the public was not allowed to attend the meeting, nor were they able to view it virtually due to what a county spokesperson said were technical difficulties. But the fact that the meeting was not accessible by the public didn’t stop the commission from voting.

“While streaming did not allow for public viewing, the meeting was recorded and all efforts will be made to have the audio of the meeting…placed on the county’s YouTube channel,” Geonardo Price, manager over zoning for the county, said following the meeting in a texted comment to The Voice via Stephen Gilchrist, chairman of the planning commission.

At press time on Wednesday, the audio had not yet been made available to the public.

While the inaccessible meeting may satisfy Richland County officials, Bill Rogers, Executive Director of the S.C. Press Association, said it sounds like an illegal meeting.

“If the public doesn’t have access to the meeting, then posting the audio later would not solve that problem,” Rogers said.

“The public has to somehow have access to the meeting at the time it is happening. They must be allowed to either be present or have access online,” Rogers said. “If not, the county has two problems. If anyone wanted to challenge that vote, they’d probably win. Another problem is that it dilutes public confidence in the government.”

Media attorney Jay Bender, who represents the S. C. Press Association, said the meeting should be rescheduled and the rezoning request re-voted.

“If the public had no access because the doors were locked or the technology failed, I believe the meeting was in violation of the law,” Bender said. “The FOIA says all meetings shall be public. If there is no contemporaneous public access, the meeting is not public. A ‘do over’ is warranted.”

Price told The Voice on Tuesday that the county does not plan to re-do the meeting.

He said the process will move forward to the next regularly scheduled meeting which will be the zoning public hearing to be held in county council chambers via zoom at 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 17. At that meeting, county council members will take the first of three votes on the rezoning request. Residents can submit written comments to council that will be read into the record by a county employee.  Those comments must be emailed to [email protected] It is the only other meeting concerning the rezoning where the public will be allowed to have input.

While some residents along Rimer Pond Road have spoken out against more residential development along the road, many say the more worrisome issue is that there are already two large neighborhoods exiting onto the two-lane Rimer Pond Road within a stone’s throw from where the road intersects with Highway 21.

“Traffic is a nightmare now at drive time,” Rimer Pond Road resident Trey Hair said. “The line of traffic sometimes backs up on Rimer Pond Road from Highway 21 for almost a mile. What will it be like when traffic from the additional 1,000 or so Great Southern Homes neighborhood and the 40 homes from the new neighborhood also enter onto Rimer Pond Road in the mornings? Traffic will be at a standstill. Council needs to solve the traffic congestion problem in that area before it creates more traffic,” Hair said. “But since we couldn’t hear the meeting, we don’t know if they addressed the issue or not. We were told that they unanimously voted to recommend the rezoning.”

Information about the meeting is listed on signs posted at 167 Rimer Pond Road. The signs were reposted on Wednesday by the county to be more visible.

A packet of complete information about the rezoning can be requested from Richland County Planning and Zoning at 803-576-2172.

Written comments must be received by county council (planningc[email protected]) on or before Wednesday, Dec. 16.

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