Unlikely duo unites against development

Harry Dalton and Kevin Sutton don't run into each other much around town, not at the art gallery parties Dalton frequents or the Republican Party functions where Sutton is a regular.

You might say the two men share little in common other than that they both live in Rock Hill.

But Dalton, the longtime champion of the arts, and Sutton, the longtime champion of lower taxes, have discovered common ground recently -- their opposition to a developer's plans for a potential 2,700-home subdivision near the Catawba River.

They are an example of how Newland Communities is creating unusual alliances as it works toward what could become the largest project ever developed in Rock Hill. Newland says it wants to build an environmentally friendly community that will include green spaces and public access to the river.

Dalton values conservation about as fervently as he values the arts. He wants the wooded land around the Catawba to remain in pristine condition for the enjoyment of hikers, campers and nature lovers.

Sutton, meanwhile, dislikes new subdivisions about as fervently as he seems to dislike art, at least the kind that requires public money. As a City Council member, he has argued that new houses drive up costs for existing residents because they require city-funded services such as police and garbage pickup.

Here, their philosophies intersect. Both are against Newland's plans as well as a renewed effort to extend Dave Lyle Boulevard into Lancaster County. The proposed $120 million extension would run near the subdivision and through the woods Dalton wants to protect.

Sutton said last week that York County doesn't need to pursue such an expensive option. He'd rather see money put toward extending Twin Lakes Road or Museum Road in north Rock Hill up to Sutton Road, giving drivers a more direct route to Charlotte than a longer Dave Lyle would.

In the stately Southern accent that has become familiar to many over the years, Dalton talked about the unlikely convergence last week.

"Kevin's a good fellow," Dalton said. "He keeps the purse strings real tight. Sometimes, it keeps him from doing crazy things. Sometimes, it keeps him from doing good things."

He added, "I do appreciate his comments, and the fact he has concerns about whether this is the best thing for the city of Rock Hill."

Unconcerned with past

Last fall, Dalton helped create the Dalton Downtown Arts Initiative to encourage better partnerships between arts programs, the latest in a long list of contributions that bear his name.

Sutton would not call himself a devoted patron of the arts. Earlier this year, he voiced distaste for using tax dollars on "some art piece" and referred to Rock Hill artist Bob Hasselle's "Spirit of Place," a sculpture of an American Indian, as "the head with the Coke bottles on it."

Dalton is not worried about the past now, at least as it involves Sutton. The past that bothers him is the failure of a local coalition to buy the land, about 1,000 acres of which comprised the Bowater paper company's seed orchard, before Newland could get it last year.

That coalition represents another unlikely set of allies: The Nation Ford Land Trust, York County Forever, the Girl Scouts Hornets' Nest Council, a local sportsman's club and the York County government. The group offered $13.2 million, but it wasn't enough.

"I'm still getting over the disappointment," Dalton said. "We had magnificent dreams. It just didn't happen."

Dalton still holds out hope that if Rock Hill leaders can be persuaded not to play ball with Newland, then maybe Newland can be convinced to sell the property back to the groups. This time, Dalton said he would be willing to put up his own money to help.

"York County just accepted it as a lost cause," he said. "Which I don't think it was. I'm not too sure it is yet."

Betty Rankin isn't sure either. She didn't know Dalton very well before the Newland project but has offered $10,000 of her savings toward his contribution. She lives near the land and doesn't want it developed, either.

"Maybe we're both dreamers," she said. "But we have a vision of what we would like. And it doesn't mean just having little trails. It means having places people can go to experience nature."

Their chances of getting the property appear slim. The asking price would be too high in the unlikely event Newland wanted to sell, says Nation Ford director Jeff Updike.

"I don't think there's a chance of that," he said. "I don't think that Newland would've bought it (the land) figuring they couldn't do something with it."

Conservation-friendly design

Newland wishes conservationists would consider a different view. The company has hired renowned conservation planner Randall Arendt to devise a layout. Most houses would be clustered together, and large tracts would be left as open space. The public would have access to greenways and trails along the Catawba River.

Those plans are far better than the alternative, Newland stresses, which is to build 900 homes that would use wells and septic tanks. The site's current zoning allows that.

"What we're proposing is just the opposite of sprawl," says Larry Burton, Newland's vice president of operations for the Mid-Atlantic region. "It's better to have compact communities and open space than the sprawl that the current zoning would allow and cause."

Dalton remains unconvinced. Depending on the outcome of talks between Newland and the city, he says maybe a conclusion few expect can be willed into reality.

"We've got to let the hands play out, don't we?" Dalton said.