Public concerns pause mass rezoning

RICHLAND COUNTY – The overhaul of Richland County’s zoning code has hit a pause after members of the public raised concerns and the Richland County Council voted to do more analysis of the proposal before moving forward.

The text of a new zoning code, which replaces all existing county zoning classifications with new ones in unincorporated Richland County (all areas outside of towns and cities), was approved by the county council in November. Still in the discussion phase is the map which assigns those new classifications to each parcel.

“There are some things that have been identified that are concerns folks have had that are kind of across the board. If we hear one that’s being reiterated, that’s one that we’re going to take back and point out to the planning commission to take a look at or as staff we’re going to potentially have suggestions for them,” says Assistant Richland County Zoning Administrator Tommy DeLage.

“A lot of the stuff that we’ve heard – it may be different from one end of the county to the other, but ultimately it comes down to density and uses and how the map is being proposed.”

DeLage, who said he’s been involved with the process since it began seven years ago, says ideally the Richland County Planning Commission will hold one or more work sessions to discuss the map and potential changes to the new zoning code before their planned May 2 meeting.

In response to public outcry at the April 4 meeting, the commission voted unanimously to defer a recommendation to council until its next regular meeting on May 2.

If the planning commission takes action on a recommendation at that meeting, the issue will then go before the county council May 24 for a first reading, DeLage says. If the planning commission chooses to defer to a later meeting, then county council’s public hearing will occur at a later date.

The next regularly scheduled county council meeting is set for 6 p.m., April 19.

Folks in the community who have concerns about the proposal say they are eager to make their voices heard.

Sal Sharpe, a fifth generation farmer who lives in North Columbia and runs a farm and garden store on the edge of Blythewood, says she and some of her neighbors plan to attend the April 19 meeting to express their desire for county elected officials to modify the plan or come up with something new that does more to protect individual property rights and that acknowledges the importance of small-scale agriculture and agritourism in Richland County.

Much of the RU (rural) zoning in the county has been assigned R1 and R2 zoning. According to the new zoning code, horse boarding that is now allowed under RU  zoning, will not be allowed on those properties under R1 and R2 zoning.

“We’re just going to show up and let them understand that we don’t need a whole blanket policy change,” Sharpe says, “that we need to continue to consider parcels individually as we do now.”

The mass rezoning process began in 2016 with the hiring of a consultant, Clarion Associates, who reported recommendations in 2017. Then work began on the text of the new zoning code, a lengthy document which was approved by council in November of 2021.

But the code, which had been touted early on as taking shape from public input, had had so little public exposure that when it was first brought to council by staff a year ago, councilmembers refused to act on it without more public input.

A map amendment notice with assigned zoning districts was mailed to property owners in February with ambiguous wording leading many residents to think the map had already been set in stone.

Council members said they had not seen the notice before it was sent out by staff, and they weren’t involved with writing it. When council approved the ordinance for the Code, they included instructions for the notice, though the notice did not clearly follow those instructions. 

“The county has created a new zoning map as part of the 2021 Land Development Code,” the notice read. “This notice provides information regarding the new zoning map and the new zoning for your property.”

The notice sparked fear and anger in many property owners they when received it. 

While county staff contends that the changes in zoning are generally harmless, property owners are discovering that the devil is in the details.

Kim Murphy, who lives in the northwest part of Richland County, says she’s still digesting all the information, but she quickly gave two examples of housing development projects in her area that were rejected by council during the rezoning process where neighbors had the opportunity to make their concerns known — but under the new zoning code and draft map, she says those projects would have been allowed outright without having to go before council.

If this is representative of the zoning overhaul’s broad effect – and she believes that it is – it would open the door to large-scale development of high-density housing across the county.

“When they go before council for rezoning, neighbors have the opportunity to make their concerns known,” Murphy says.

“I’m open to hearing ideas, but you just cannot give free rein to the developers. You can’t take that oversight away from county council and their ability to manage growth,” Murphy says. “We can hold council members accountable for managing growth, but we can’t hold a map accountable.”

She says she doesn’t want Richland County to suffer the same impacts of overdevelopment that have been felt in next door Lexington County – and she’s hopeful that county leaders will step back and take a more detailed look at the proposal to include more protections for rural land and preserve elected leaders’ ability to manage growth by retaining decision-making authority over proposed developments.

“I think what’s happened is now that the property owners are digging in and becoming informed about the issue, the voters are becoming informed and council members are becoming informed as well that maybe they don’t need to just jump right into this,” Murphy says.

She says she’s encouraged that county council members voted to take a careful look at the proposal.

The planning commission’s work sessions, which are expected to be scheduled soon, are open to the public but are without public comment. However, at their regular scheduled meeting on May 2, which will be held after the work sessions, public comment will be permitted. Pending the commission’s recommendation on May 2, Council’s first reading and public hearing is scheduled for May 26.

The next meeting is at county council, 2020 Hampton Street in Columbia on April 19, 2022.

Asked if people would be allowed to speak to the issue at that meeting, the Richland County Council clerk said, “If the ordinance has already been adopted by council, I think someone should be able to speak on the subject [code, not map] of that ordinance.”

DeLage says county staff and planning commission are still accepting input from county residents, which can be communicated by email at [email protected] or by phone at (803) 576-2190.

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