Richland PC pursues mass zoning amendments

COLUMBIA – After almost an hour Tuesday evening of reviewing and discussing procedures related to proposed amendments made by the Richland County Planning Commission to the county’s 2021 Land Development Code, the Development and Services (D & S) Committee was not a lot closer to getting those amendments to county council for a vote.

At issue is a high profile mass rezoning effort by Richland County’s planning staff that could lead to automatic up-zoning of properties and neighboring vacant tracts to denser zoning designations – all with little to no input from county council. The Planning Commission’s proposed amendments, if adopted by council, would negate the staff’s proposal.

“Sometimes, all the choices you have are hard ones,” said Chakise Newman, Chair of the D & S Committee and member of Richland County Council. “And I think that’s where we are here.”

The staff’s initial rezoning plan in 2016 – making major text amendments to the 2005 zoning code — had been partly approved by council in November 2021.  Then, when the not-yet-approved zoning map portion of the plan created by staff was mailed to property owners in February 2022, many property owners in the unincorporated area of the county began to grasp that it would result in a mass up-zoning. There was an outcry from citizens against both the 2021 zoning text amendments and staff’s zoning map.

As a result, council asked that both the 2021 text amendments and the corresponding zoning map for the 2021 Land Development Code(LDC) be re-discussed before proceeding further.

Because of the push-back from concerned citizens, the process was restarted in April of 2022, with the county planning commission focusing on amending many key sections of the 2021 LDC text that county planning staff had previously recommended to the 2005 zoning codes.

For months, the planning commissioners crafted a number of proposed amendments to the staff’s language. During that time, staff failed, in some cases, to properly record the commission’s amendments, which has led to confusion.

On Tuesday evening, the D&S Committee considered procedures for how to tackle reviewing amendments recommended by the planning commissioners and how to move them forward to the full council in light of the strict guidelines placed on them by the county attorney.

Proponents of the planning commission’s proposed 2022 amendments say that if those amendments are upheld, they will stop the mass up-zoning of rural parcels to higher densities, allowing county council to continue managing growth using individual case by case considerations, as they do now, that in clude public input.

While the planning commission and many council members want the commission’s text amendments and their new map to be moved out of the D&S committee and adopted by the full council, the planning staff and County Attorney Patrick Wright are pushing for the committee to slow down their efforts and instead approve only a zoning map but without the text amendments.

“This council has already approved the text for 2021 the land development code and the maps go with the texts,” Wright said. “Once a map is approved, we will have a complete text, a complete code that has been approved and then we can make the amendments. So this would come after the maps are approved.”

Members of the committee, however, were not convinced that the map had to be approved first. While Wright suggested to the committee that it would be unlawful for council to approve text amendments before approving the map, he offered no statute as proof of such legality.

One attendee at the D&S meeting stated that she feared that adoption of the zoning map would automatically cause the text developed by staff in the 2021 code, which she deemed harmful to the county, to be enacted, hence blocking the approval of the commission’s 2022 amendments.

Wright informed the committee that if they recommended the planning commission’s amendments to council, that council would have to act on them that month, and that would be in conflict with the law unless they first adopted the map.

“Is there a motion to adopt the map and forward it to council with an effective date of Dec. 1 to allow for time to fix the land development code?” Newton asked the committee members.

“Hearing none, thank you,” Newman said. “This item will remain in committee, and thank you to the commission.” The results of the motion appeared to be a signal that the committee was not comfortable advancing staff’s and the county attorney’s recommendation.

The committee meets once each month in council chambers. It will next meet on June 27, 5 p.m.

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