Planners aim to fix mistakes around airport

The Rock Hill/York County airport hasn't seen much traffic because of the Democratic National Convention.
The Rock Hill/York County airport hasn't seen much traffic because of the Democratic National Convention. heraldonline.com archives

Joan Colestock has seen the Rock Hill/York County Airport grow and change during the 20 years she's lived nearby.

She isn't bothered by the noise and said her neighborhood is a livable, wonderful place to be.

County and city planners want to keep it that way by preventing dense housing that already has been built on the airport's west side from occuring elsewhere in the area.

More than 200 homes have been built in neighborhoods near the airport, with townhouses and apartments so close they easily can be seen from the runway. None violate safety standards, but aeronautic officials have worried about what will happen as the airport continues to grow.

Plans are in the works to restrict development so the airport can increase services while protecting property owners from potential plane crashes, noise and other problems.

Called an overlay district, the changes place additional restrictions on an area. Similar to a buffer around a lake, the changes don't affect zoning but rather dictate such things as how tall buildings can be and how close they can be to each other.

More than 500 property owners could be affected by changes, and at least 65 were angry and confused at a recent informational meeting at Mount Gallant Elementary School.

Many were afraid the changes would amount to annexation or rezoning, but York County Planning Director Susan Britt said that isn't the case.

Development around the airport already is bound by an ordinance created in 1985, but it lacks control and boundaries, said York County Planning Manager Steve Allen. The existing ordinance is being toughened and changes will be need to adopted by York County and Rock Hill councils.

"We don't want to have high-density housing to continue to grow around the airport," Allen said. "It (changing the ordinance) is the best thing to restrict future development. It won't affect current property owners all that much."

Built in northern Rock Hill in the 1950s, the airport has a 7,200- square-foot terminal and 5,500- foot-long runway. Land already has been purchased to lengthen the runway in the next decade.

Single-engine planes and business jets take off and land 40,000 times annually at the airport, where flight instruction, aircraft rental and hanger service and sightseeing flights are offered.

Existing multifamily units were permitted in the area by zoning in the mid-1980s. Some are close to the airport because there weren't restrictions on where they could be placed at that time, Allen said.

Britt acknowledged at the meeting that mistakes happened. She said the proposed changes are aimed at preventing them from being repeated.

The tighter restrictions would prevent townhouses and apartments from being built in the area, said Allen. They would allow only single-family neighborhoods with no more than two houses per acre. Landfills, wildlife sanctuaries and health care facilities would not be permitted.

The proposed plan divides the area into three zones, with more stringent requirements closer to the airport. Each zone has an acceptable noise level.

A disclosure statement would be required on all real estate transactions in the district, a procedure Allen didn't expect to be prohibitive for residents.

"Saying you live near an airport doesn't change the fact that you live near an airport," he said.

But residents at the meeting were worried about this affecting property values.

Colestock wondered why the new restrictions need to apply to her already-developed neighborhood. She called for more research.

"Why don't they label school, shopping center and stadium zones?" she asked of the disclosure statement. "I think an economic or feasibility study should be done to see how this will impact us."

Allen said these studies aren't required to change the ordinance.

If the ordinance is passed, existing structures would be exempt from most new restrictions, but additions, redevelopment and other structure changes would be subject, said Christine Fisher, a long-range planner with the city of Rock Hill.

A day-care center and other facilities already in the area would be able to continue.

If new restaurants, retail stores and offices are approved in the middle zone, they could be required to reduce outside noise through construction materials.

The ordinance is expected to be presented to both councils in the spring. Wording for each council will be basically the same, Allen said. Proposed ordinances aren't yet available for public review.