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April 27, 2012

Revising York County’s development standards still possible

Efforts to unite all of York County’s standards for development, construction and land use into one law may be revived.

York County’s effort to unite all of its standards for development, construction and land use into one law may not be dead after all.

The county council voted Monday to abolish those effort after opponents jammed the council’s chambers and angrily criticized a draft of possible changes. But some council members, county staff and several developers don’t want the issue to linger as they acknowledge the current laws need fixing.

What form the fixes could take is unclear, but words such as shorter, simplified, and common sense are most often offered when talking about what needs to be done.

“It’s a process that’s still in motion, not halted,” said council chairman Britt Blackwell.

Blackwell wants to appoint a committee – one that includes developers and representatives of the construction industry – to write a code that protects the safety of county residents and is more business friendly. From his perspective, “nothing would be off the table” for a new committee.

County manager Jim Baker and Planning Director Dave Pettine said they are willing to move forward after a short cooling off period. Baker said he wants to restart the process after theJune party primaries so the issue will not be so political. Five of the seven council members face opposition in the primaries.

State Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill – one of the harshest critics of the ordinance – said he’s willing to move forward. Norman, a developer, proposes a committee that would include developers, builders, surveyors, architects and civil engineers – the people who work with the code daily.

He said those people have been largely excluded from the process to develop a new ordinance. County staff disagree, saying such input has been part of the process.

Other members of a committee could include county council members, staff, and residents.

It is unclear whether a new committee would start from scratch or use the current ordinances as a starting point. Norman said a new committee should complete its work within four to six months. The proposed ordinance - called the unified development ordinance - abolished Monday was more than two years in the making.

The proposed ordinance filled a three-ring binder with almost two inches of paper. Blackwell wants to cut it to about 150 pages. County staff members say the proposed ordinance would have slightly increased the code’s size, from 725 pages to 750.

Norman said he wants a code that is less restrictive, has more defined timelines for reviewing permit applications, and gives very little discretion to county staff when making decisions.

Areas where the proposed ordinance was too restrictive included the length of cul-de-sacs, square footage limits in business zoning, and other provisions that determine where parking and storage must go, Norman said.

In today’s tight economy, “we need as much leeway for business as possible,” Norman said. “We should let our customers decide what they want.”

The debate over discretion in the proposed ordinance baffled the county staff. Pettine said discretion was written into the proposed code to give staff the ability to reduce some requirements by as much as 10 percent, speeding up the process and avoiding having to go to through the zoning appeals process. The current code does not give staff this authority.

Such discretion is “consistent with every code I know,” Baker said.

Norman and other developers said they want more specifics. They said the proposed code allows staff to make decisions without any guidelines.

Pettine said a code that considers all possible scenarios would be longer, not shorter.

That said, Pettine acknowledged the current code is “text heavy.” To eliminate some of the text, a section defining terms and acronyms was included in the proposed ordinance.Also unclear is what will happen to the new proposals made in the unified development ordinance. Pettine said several proposed changes would have helped property and business owners.

One is creating new classifications that would allow for more neighborhoods with both residential and commercial development, such as Baxter Village near Fort Mill. Baxter is the only so-called “mixed use” community in York County. The new zoning would have allowed developers to take the Baxter Village concept and apply to smaller communities.

Another provision would have allowed property owners to build a separate structure on residential lots that could be used as “mother-in-law suites.” Currently the code only allows such buildings in Baxter Village, Pettine said.

A third provision would have allowed conditional zoning, a practice where the land owner and the county agree to limit what a property will be used for. Typically, if the council rezones a piece of property, the property owner can do whatever the new zoning allows him to do on the property. With conditional rezoning, the applicant could stipulate specific uses, eliminating other activities that neighbors might oppose.

The call for a comprehensive committee follows Monday’s contentious county council meeting that featured Baker and

Norman exchanging words and residents accusing the county of squashing individual property rights. Frequent outbursts of clapping from the audience dismayed Blackwell, who at one point threatened to have people removed from the room to maintain decorum.

“This is not a football game,” Blackwell said.

Councilman Curwood Chappell questioned Blackwell’s efforts, noting, “Hitler said the same thing.”

Norman said the high emotions were the result of the home builders association and other developers feeling they were “stonewalled” by the county staff.

Members of the home builders association and staff had recently met to discuss the proposed ordinance. Norman said they left that meeting “encouraged,” but, “when we asked them to put things into writing is when the wheels came off the tracks.”

Pettine, the county’s planning director, said staff “were hoping for more dialogue,” but the home builders took another route.

Despite the acrimony, Norman said the desire should be “good planning. It helps the whole community do better.

“Not planning is not an option.”


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