Richland County’s mass zoning proposal losing ground

COLUMBIA – As Richland County leaders near the end of what’s become a lengthy process to change the zoning en masse for the unincorporated areas of the county, both a zoning map and the first reading of amendments to the zoning text to the county’s zoning ordinance received approval Tuesday.

The Richland County Council approved (9-1) 78 amendments to a zoning map on its third and final reading and passed first reading (8-2) to adopt the Richland County Planning Commission’s recommended text amendment to the 2021 land development code, which will regulate development in unincorporated parts of the county.

The text amendment is due to return for second and third reading approval at the Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 council meetings and, once approved, would take effect March 1, 2024.

“This process has been an example of government responding to the public,” said Council Member Jason Branham, who worked on the issue as chairman of the county’s planning commission until he was elected to the county council last year.

“It started with county council making the decision about two years ago to send this back to the planning commission for some further review and incorporation of public input, and they did just that,” Branham said.

The map, he said, will minimize disruption to county landowners – and the text amendment addresses concerns that were raised about a land development code passed by council in November of 2021.

“I feel really good about it,” Branham said of the text amendments approved on first reading Tuesday.

“It preserves the appropriate process for review when proposed changes are brought forth. I think it creates more transparency. It creates more consistent outcomes in development when it does happen, it helps with having harmonious development, and it provides greater protection of agricultural lands and communities, and I’m really proud of that.”

The motion to approve the text amendment on first reading passed 7-2, with council members Don Weaver and Gretchen Barron, one of two Blythewood representatives, voting against.

“There are some things that were stated previously about making some of the revisions and modifications,” Barron said without giving specifics, “and when I see those revisions and modifications, then my no will turn into a yes.”

Barren was also the sole council member to vote against approval of the map.

Blythewood representative Derek Pugh voted for approval of both the map and the text amendments.

“After we passed the new land development code in 2021, I realized that our community hadn’t had any say-so on the document,” Pugh told The Voice. So we, as a council, sent it back to the planning commission and they did an outstanding job revising the document and we met with our constituents and got their feedback.

“This document now assures the Blythewood community can keep its rural integrity and assure that we move forward in a positive way. I’m very proud of that,” Pugh said.

Weaver cast his ‘no’ vote on the principle that the zoning changes would constitute an uncompensated taking of property rights – a philosophical stance that often comes up in localities’ zoning debates, but which some view as largely academic in places where zoning restrictions are the norm.

“I can’t vote for this… but it is no reflection on the planning commission; I think they’ve done a lot of work on that,” Weaver said.

“I understand that, and I understand council members are responding to people in the district. I just feel this is a government taking of property without compensation because, for folks that want to develop the property, we’re changing the rules, but we’re not compensating them for it, and I just think that’s unfair.”

“I respect Mr. Weaver for being transparent about the fact that he views these issues through his personal perspective as a developer,” Branham told The Voice following the meeting. “He would also readily acknowledge that very little if any of his council district will be impacted by these development laws which only affect the unincorporated parts of the county.

“As the chairman indicated last night, the chair and I are the only two attorneys on council,” Branham continued.  “And while I do not offer legal opinions for the county, Mr. Walker and I both learned back in law school about the legal analysis for what does and does not constitute a taking. Richland County is not the first local government to modify its development codes. The county attorney has never expressed any concern to council that these proposals would result in a taking.

‘So while I acknowledge that some residential developers may prefer the version of the code that drew public outcry,” Branham said, “no licensed attorney that I know would seriously argue that the planning commission’s proposals constitute a taking. The objective of the planning commission’s  recommendations was never to penalize residential developers; rather, the objectives included: incorporating public input, preserving due process of re-zoning applications, promoting more harmonious and reliable outcomes when re-zoning and development occurs, and preserving agricultural lands,” Branham said.

Richland County staff first began working on an update to the county’s 2005 land development code back in 2016. A consultant hired by the county recommended changes that would’ve allowed increased housing density and other changes impacting rural land use in unincorporated areas of the county, which comprise about 365,000 acres.

An upheaval of landowners spoke out against this proposal with concerns that infill development and the loss of opportunity to protest rezoning would be disruptive to existing neighborhoods and rural communities.

In 2021 the county council approved a text version of the consultant’s recommendation, but the council never completed the process by approving a new zoning map, which was required for a change to the land development code to take effect.

When county staff sent out a notice of a proposed map amendment to the public last year, it ignited a controversy among residents, especially in the rural, who weren’t happy with how it would impact their property. Protesters packed the council meeting room calling for the slowdown or shutdown of the mass-rezoning process, and the matter was sent back to the planning commission for further review.

The new amended zoning map that council approved Tuesday and the text amendments (if they pass third reading) will have effectively reversed most of the controversial elements of the consultant’s plan.

After the vote, Barron asked that county staff ensure that residents are thoroughly educated about the current proposal and how it will impact them.

Asked about how the ongoing process would impact any zoning requests made between now and when the new land development code takes effect on March 1 (assuming the currently proposed text amendments are adopted), county officials said any such requests for rezoning would have to go to the planning department, but that council would not vote on any applications submitted (after the adoption of the text) until after March 1, 2024.

The next vote on the text amendments will be held Nov. 7 in council chambers.

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