By Arthur Northrop
This article is a first in a series covering the residential development in Edgefield County. Council members Jackie Kennion, Albert Talbert, and Dean Campbell did not comment by the first deadline. Scott Cooper, County Council Chair did respond. Megan Pearson, a concerned citizen who has and is following Edgefield County’s Comprehensive Plan also provided information regarding the plan’s development.
Edgefield County Government Staff, the County Planning Commissionand the Edgefield County Council went through a process to develop a Comprehensive Plan (shortened version of “Comprehensive Land Use and Transportation Plan”). The Comprehensive Plan serves as the law that a county must follow when making decisions including residential development. A consultant was hired by the Council and meetings were held all over the County in order for citizens to have a say about the county’s residential development future.
At these meetings, county residents were able to voice their concerns and have input in the plan that was developed by a consultant along with the Planning Commission, taking citizen input in developing the plan.There was strong support from many of the people who had provided input in the Comprehensive Plan’s creation.
According to Megan Pearson, a concerned citizen, the State Comprehensive Planning Act and the Municipal Association of South Carolina require the process of developing a Comprehensive Plan to be done in the open. Following these guidelines, the proposed plan was available to the public for review in advance of the three readings of the plan at the County Council meeting. However, the night the Comprehensive Plan was to be finalized in its third reading and voted on for the third and final time, a Council member proposedchanges to the plan. The changes to the Comprehensive Plan made it possible for developers to build houses closer together, on smaller lots, and potentially for the values of some land suitable for development to increase. For the County’s residents who had been a part of the Comprehensive Plan’s development, they felt the changes to the plan to be far from what had been publicly presented in advance and what they thought would be approved. There was a 3-2 split in the Council as they voted on the change in the plan, and the whole plan was approved (see Advertiser’sCounty Council article, June 12. 2019).
These changes in the plan led to a petition to require the County Council to look at their decision again regarding development laws or have the changes voted on in a referendum. The petition was developed by Pearsonwith help from others who objected to the last-minute changes. Pearson has followed the entire process of the Comprehensive Plan development. “We went to the public meetings and attended many of them outside my area. The main thing I heard at every meeting was we do not want to be Columbia County, we don’t want to be North Augusta. We would like to maintain the rural feel we have,” said Pearson.
Tommy Paradise, Edgefield County Administrator, communicated that there is a process that must be followed for a county council to change aComprehensive Plan or for the matter to be placed in a referendum for Edgefield County voters to decide.
Paradise said if the petition is received by Council, the petition signatures will need to be verified as qualified electors by the Director of Voter Registrations and also verified that the confirmed signatures equal 15% of the qualified electors of the county. If this threshold is met, then County Council would decide if they want to change the ordinance as submitted or not pass the change and send it to the voters for a referendum.
Part of Pearson’s education on how our county government works led tohow she worded the petition. She gathered over 1,000 signatures on the petition before realizing the wording would provide the grounds for the petition to be ignored or rejected by the County Council on a technicality. Pearson is in the process of contacting the people who signed the original petition and asking them to sign the revised one.
Paradise quoted the laws that explain that county residents can propose and adopt or reject ordinances by petition to the county council. If the county council does not pass the proposed ordinance, SECTION 4-9-1230. States: “An election shall be held where council fails to adopt or repeal ordinance. If the council shall fail to pass an ordinance proposed by initiative petition or shall pass it in a form substantially different from that set forth in the petition therefore or if the council shall fail to repeal an ordinance for which a petition for repeal has been presented, the adoption or repeal of the ordinance concerned shall be submitted to the electors not less than thirty days nor more than one year from the date the council takes its final vote thereon.
The council may, in its discretion, and if no regular election is to be held within such period, provide for a special election. All county councils shall be bound by the results of any such referendum.”
Pearson’s petition would require the County Council to vote on the proposed change to the Comprehensive Plan. If the council does not act, the voters in Edgefield County get to make the decision by voting on a referendum.
Pearson and many of the 1,000 plus signers of the petition feel the quick development of high-density housing in the county will ultimately increase the taxes (i.e. infrastructure costs) on the residents of Edgefield County. In addition, the petition’s backers feel the high-density development will negatively impact the people who were raised here or those who moved to the county for a rural lifestyle. “State law mandates that we the citizens have a valid part in the process, that we are heard and our wants are recognized,” said Pearson. Pearson maintains the last-minute changes to the Comprehensive Plan went against all the input sheand other concerned County residents had provided in the public input process.
Scott Cooper, Edgefield County Chairperson acknowledged there is a lot of angst over the development taking place in the County and he is fine with the right of people to petition. Cooper maintains the changes on the third reading of the Comprehensive Plan should not have been a surprise to anyone following the process.
Cooper communicated that at an October 2018 Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee meeting, he asked what percentage of the real-estate market in our seven-county area had five acre lots. Cooper said the five-acre sized lots were suggested early in the development of the Comprehensive Plan. Cooper said he asked why would we want to lock up hundreds of square miles of our most valuable resource (land) as larger lots that are only 10% of the real-estate market. Cooper said no-one at the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee meeting answered his question.
Next week’s article digs down into Scott Cooper’s views on property ownership and the concerns of those who are opposing high-density development. Any other county council members are welcome to contact me at email@example.com to weigh in on residential development in Edgefield County.