Hearing complaints from area developers about the county not being "business-friendly," county leaders are urging staff to facilitate new and expanding businesses any way they can.
While they admit there's always room for improvement, county staff says the law often dictates how they define "business-friendly."
The topic was the focus of a special York County Council meeting Chairman Britt Blackwell requested on Nov. 17.
The Council aired complaints from the development community and asked staff to share ideas on how the county might improve the way it does business.
"Y'all know that we want to be business-friendly and we want people to be treated like y'all want to be treated," Blackwell said to staff.
He said he is concerned when he hears about a regulation or rule the county set up that is troublesome to builders or developers.
Blackwell asked staff to identify "asinine" regulations so the council can change them. He made repeated appeals to staff, asking them to speak up.
"This is a dialogue session. We get tired of hearing each other. We came here to hear from y'all."
"I hope y'all feel like talking, and aren't just going to sit out there like statues and not want to give us feedback. That's the only way we learn," he said.
'Y'all need to be nicer to people'
While waiting, other council members shared their concerns.
The county has come a long way in being more friendly to customers but could go further in saying "yes" more than "no," said Councilman Curwood Chappell.
"I think sometimes we get carried away with the ability and authority to say 'no' to someone, when our job is to promote and say 'yes' to good clean, sober, conscientious investors that see fit to still invest in York County," he said.
"Attitude is so important," Councilman Bruce Henderson said.
"Make it a joy, a pleasure for someone to want to come and set up business in York County or to expand, or whatever it is they want to do," he said.
"What you're doing to them, you're doing to yourself, because it's going to come back in tax money."
That could mean raises down the line and job security, Henderson said.
The first of several county employees to speak out asked if staff was there to discuss the process of working with customers or, as Henderson suggested, staff's performance. She said some staff members were probably afraid to speak out.
"Sometimes we feel, or I feel, like we aren't given an opportunity. Nobody calls and asks us. It's just 'the staff, the staff, the staff," she said.
"Y'all need to be nicer to people."
Bound by the law
Dave Pettine, the county's planning and development director, pressed the council for specific examples of complaints. Without specifics, it's difficult to determine a solution, he said.
Henderson mentioned a business owner who was asked "on Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock" to address a violation on a sign that had been erect for years without any complaints.
Pettine said the county doesn't police businesses looking for violations, but if staff receives a complaint, they look into it. If they find a violation, they're obligated to address it, he said.
Another person complained about having to move a toilet several inches to meet the standards for a certificate of occupancy, Henderson said.
"When folks are having to move a commode five, ten inches for the sake of the international builders code, I guess, before they can be occupied ... the benefit of the doubt should go to the person who's trying to generate a profit. Profit is not a dirty word," Henderson said.
Pettine said he never would ask staff to overlook a known violation.
"If it takes another day to move a commode" before the county will allow a business to open its doors, then "unfortunately, that's what (businesses) have to do," Pettine said.
"There are certain things (staff) can't just walk out of an inspection on and say 'Well, you're close enough.'"
If a faulty inspection is reviewed later, the inspectors could lose their licenses and their jobs, Pettine said.
"That's not something I'll ever ask of my guys," he said.
Councilman Bump Roddey urged staff to uphold the law.
"Before everybody gets caught up in being too business-friendly, that doesn't mean we can't tell someone 'no,'" he said.
Staff argued they already do a lot to prevent projects from being held up.
Every Thursday, for example, staff allows anyone planning a project to meet with county staff for free. The meetings are designed to clarify the process of submitting and approving plans, which helps cut back on customers becoming upset when they're asked to correct something down the line, Pettine said.
Pettine echoed concerns that staff often feel they don't get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to complaints.
"They're doing the best job they can, and then they're told they're not doing enough," he said.
Input from developers
At the meeting, Blackwell and state Rep. Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill developer, questioned whether staff contacted developers in its recent revision of the county's guidelines for land development.
Developers and landowners should be at the table, Norman said Wednesday.
"They ought to be at the table because it's their money that will pay for the regulations being imposed on them," he said.
The claim that developers have been out of the loop was "not entirely accurate," Pettine said, given that 75 to 80 percent of the ideas in the revised guidelines came directly from developers and builders.
For nearly two years, staff has been revising the guidelines, which are widely accused of being outdated and cumbersome.
Updating the guidelines will make them easier to use and more effective, staff says.
County staff met on a monthly basis with stakeholders and incorporated their suggestions in the revision, Pettine said. About eight to 12 people representing developers attended each meeting, he said.
In September and October, staff held public meetings around the county requesting feedback on the revisions from the public and developers. Those meetings were not well attended, Pettine said.
At the meeting with staff, Norman argued that the poorly attended meetings were a sign that developers either were not aware of the revisions, or were not given a chance to give input.
The county should adopt the City of Rock Hill's approach to working with developers, Norman and Blackwell said. The city manager calls them directly to find out when they're available to meet. Norman has attended meetings with 20 to 30 developers and city officials which were "highly productive," he said.
"It's been an intense process - that's why it's taken so long," Pettine said, adding that "If we need to do more, we'll do more."
County Manager Jim Baker said he'd be happy to call developers directly if that would help.
Blackwell suggested that communication between developers and staff might be the real issue.
"The trust is there," Blackwell told staff. "There's no doubt about the quality of the people (on staff)."