Fairfield County Planning Commission rejects R-2 Gum Springs zoning

WINNSBORO – For the second time in two years, Fairfield residents are banding together to oppose a controversial rezoning in their backyards.

Last week, the Fairfield County Planning Commission voted 4-1-1(an abstention) to recommend that council vote against rezoning nearly 400 acres at the southwest corner of S.C. 34 and Gum Springs Road to accommodate a subdivision, the scope of which remains fuzzy.

Haven Communities LLC has asked for 390.42 acres to be rezoned from L-I (Light Industrial) to R-2 (Residential 2) to build an unspecified number of homes. Fairfield County Council will have the final say at a later date.

It’s unclear how many homes the developer wants to build.

At the meeting, John Rowe with Haven Communities said Phase I would include about 200 homes with an average price of $250K – $300K, but didn’t provide further details about the subdivision’s size.

Rowe did say the previous R-1 (Rural Residential District) zoning which is restricted to single family homes, and is less dense than R-2, wouldn’t meet the developer’s needs.

“That’s just not quite enough to get us over the line. We’re going to need a little more [density] than that,” Rowe said.

The R-2 zoning allows single family, multi-family and mobile homes, potentially opening the door to at least 1,000 residential units on the property. With the open space option, there could be as many as 10 units per acre.

Nearby residents overwhelmingly oppose development to that degree. They fear the rezoning will make the area a magnet for high density, low income housing that’s incompatible with the high-end homes and spacious lots currently dotting the landscape.

“Do you consider the opinions of 60-something residents or one property owner looking to make a buck?” said Peter Gainey, one of 11 residents addressing planning commissioners at the meeting.

“Leave the zoning the way it is,” Gainey pleaded.

Same property, new problems

The Gum Springs Road property is the same parcel that County Council voted to rezone in July 2022 from R-1 (single family zoning) to Industrial over the objections of residents.

Gainey said he moved 20 years go to Fairfield County to escape the nightmarish traffic caused by the glut of subdivisions in the Sandhills area of northeastern Richland County.

“Clemson Road turned out to be a raceway,” he said.

Amy Griffith, who lives off Gum Springs Road, said county first responders are already woefully shortstaffed, noting response times sometimes reach 30 minutes. Adding more residents will only make a bad situation worse, she said.

“You’re better off driving to the ER yourself,” Griffith said. “This is more common than you think. We have take care of our current residents before we invite more into our county.”

Sign of the times

Donita Harris criticized what she characterized as a lack of transparency on the part of the county.

She stated public hearing signs contained the wrong date and tried to present photos of the signs before being rebuffed by Carter Thompson, the county’s new planning and zoning director.

“This zoning thing that was put out had the wrong date on it. That just breeds mistrust in the community,” Harris said. “I would ask that you do better next time.”

A series of texts provided to the Voice between Harris and Thompson began with Harris textinh the initial public hearing sign disappeared during stormy weather.

A second sign was posted which also disappeared. But a photo of that second sign shows that it displayed the wrong date. Nevertheless, Thompson refused to replace the sign, saying the department had already replaced one sign, but not acknowledging that the second sign had the wrong date for the public hearing.

Thompson texted Harris a second time on September 13, saying that “as a courtesy” letters notifying residents about the public hearing had been mailed. Harris said she never received one.

“It is not one of the requirement [sic] for rezone procedures to [be sent to] adjacent property owners,” the text states. “I have attached the legal ad draft, the photo’s [sic] from postings of the signs and the letter that was sent to adjacent [property] owners that directly abut the parcel in question.”

In addition to not posting notice signs correctly, the meeting agenda was not posted for the public. The Voice was unable to obtain a copy of the agenda until less than an hour before the meeting.

Superintendent spat

During the hearing, Mesha Perry said she feared overdevelopment would ruin the peace and quiet that makes Fairfield an appealing place to raise a family. She took aim at developers she saw as purely profit driven.

“At the end of the day these people are going to come in here, make their money, and then they’re going to leave,” Perry said.

Then Perry turned her attention to Fairfield’s education system, saying more focus is needed there before bringing in new residents.

“Fairfield County gets so much money per student and look at where we are. We are at the bottom,” she said.

Perry’s remarks caught the ire of Dr. J.R. Green, superintendent of the Fairfield County School District.

Green said he attended the hearing to speak in support of the subdivision, the only public speaker to do so. But first, he took aim at Perry.

“I would love to hear where you get that data from because it’s absolutely false,” Green said. “The suggestion that we are at the bottom is absolutely ridiculous and I would challenge anyone to present objective evidence to support such a statement.”

According to the latest school district analysis on the SC Department of Education website, Fairfield schools receive more than $20,000 per student per year, one of the highest per pupil revenues in the state. 

In 2022, four of seven Fairfield schools were rated Average and a fifth was rated Below Average, according to SC School Report Cards.

One school received an Unsatisfactory rating in the Academic Achievement category, while two others were rated Below Average in Academic Achievement, data shows.

As proof of Fairfield education success, Green pointed to his daughters, one of whom is attending Clemson and the other the University of South Carolina.

About 51% of Fairfield graduates are enrolled in a two- or four-year college according to report card data.

Richland 2 (68.5%), Newberry (54.7%), Kershaw (54.0%), and Richland 1 (53.1%) all had higher percentages of students pursuing post-secondary education. Chester (43.5%) was the only area district trailing Fairfield.

As for the Gum Springs Road rezoning, Green said he supported the project because many Fairfield residents “struggle to find affordable housing.”

The Planning Commission’s recommendation to vote against the rezoning of the Gum Springs property will likely go before county council for first reading at the Oct. 9 council meeting.

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]