Could Rock Hill's upcoming city elections intensify conflicts over a massive housing development planned near the Catawba River?
Incumbents Kathy Pender and Kevin Sutton each said they are running again for City Council seats this fall. Susie Hinton, a longtime local activist and former principal at St. Anne Catholic School, will seek the seat being vacated by the retiring Winston Searles.
No race is contested yet, but that could change because the filing period began this week.
Sutton fired off what might be an opening salvo on Wednesday. He criticized Newland Communities' plans for a potential 2,700-home subdivision east of Dave Lyle Boulevard -- and questioned whether fellow council members are familiar with the traffic congestion he believes it would worsen.
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"I'm trying to avoid York County looking like Atlanta in the mornings and the afternoons," Sutton told The Herald. "I don't think you have a council that sees how much traffic is already there. So we're making decisions in a vacuum."
Sutton, 37, a sales representative for Flakeboard America, takes Interstate 77 to work every day. When a morning wreck snarled traffic on the interstate last month, Sutton said he waited at home for an extra hour and then endured a 90-minute delay to reach his office.
That experience helped fortify his opposition to a $120 million plan to extend Dave Lyle into Lancaster County, an idea originally conceived in the late 1980s.
It also puts him at odds with Mayor Doug Echols and other leaders who support the extension as a regional connector giving drivers an alternate route to Charlotte.
"I always thought it was probably a good idea to finish that loop," Sutton said. "I would certainly not be for it right now if it was to facilitate the Newland development. Times have changed. When you look at Dave Lyle, it's just totally congested."
Newland has amassed more than 1,800 acres and envisions an upscale subdivision on what is now woodland. Based on recent talks with the city, Newland believes the project can move forward soon.
"The ones that don't understand what we're proposing to do, I hope they'll get a better understanding of what good planning is about," Newland Vice President Larry Burton said Wednesday. "And see what we're proposing is much better than what we're allowed to do."
Burton stresses that the site's current zoning allows for as many as 900 homes that would use wells and septic tanks. Instead of that option, Newland hopes to negotiate with Rock Hill leaders to design a master-planned community better for both sides.
Those negotiations could lead to an annexation that would allow up to 2,700 homes. That's what Sutton finds troubling.
"I think they're trying to throw a tremendous amount of money around to try to sway people and put together a real nice dog and pony show," he said of Newland. "For a while, there didn't seem to be much interest on council. Now all of a sudden, I'm not saying they're for it. (But) there's a lot more interest."
Told of Sutton's comments, Pender said she didn't want to get into an exchange. She emphasized that traffic congestion is one of many factors that deserves scrutiny.
"The infrastructure in terms of roads is definitely a consideration," she said. "There are a lot of things to consider -- schools, park land, quality, timing of growth. All of those are things we've got to pay serious attention to."
Hinton, who helps lead the local NAACP chapter, declined to weigh in on Newland and said she would talk more about her priorities soon.
Searles: 'I'm sure this time'
This fall will mark the end of a long career in public life for Searles, 85, the retired U.S. Postal Service worker who has represented Ward 1 since 1980.
Searles focused on bringing improvements to the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood, and more recently, cleaning up its Arcade Mill property, which was gutted by fire in 1997.
"My health says I ought to give it up," said Searles, who planned to retire before the 1999 election but was talked out of it by a group of supporters. "I've cut down on a whole lot of things that I used to go to. I'm sure this time."