Is it the deal of a lifetime? Here’s reaction to York County’s $21 million land buy

Whether it unifies York County, or tears it east from west, the deal will happen.

York County Council finalized a vote Monday night to spend $21 million on 1,900 acres for a recreation site along the Catawba River. Details on how the property will be used haven’t been determined, though county leaders have spoken about an Anne Springs Close Greenway-style site, a reference to the Fort Mill park filled with trails, fishing and outdoor events.

“This is a very rare opportunity,” said Councilwoman Christi Cox. “Where else in this county is there 1,900 acres available for us to do anything? It just doesn’t exist.”

Acquiring the property, as an idea, met with universal support Monday night from a cascade of residents and civic leaders.

Acquiring it, the way the county wants, didn’t.

Disagreement about hospitality tax money

York resident C.W. Senn serves on the county agritourism committee. He said he won’t, if county hospitality tax dollars flow to the 1,900 acres at the expense of agritourism.

“I’m against acquiring this property and using Htax (hospitality tax) funds to acquire it all,” he said. “Now if you want to come up with another method to do it, I’d probably be OK with that.”

Hospitality tax is a two percent charge on prepared food and drink, charged in unincorporated areas.

Visions on how that tax money is spent have focused on an agritourism site, long discussed and studied if not confirmed for the western part of the county.

“They’ll eat up (hospitality tax money) for probably 15 or 20 years,” Senn said. “And I’ll never get what I’m looking for in the agritourism committee that I serve on.”

Senn said he also sees a larger issue -- the division between high-growth eastern parts of the county -- like Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and parts of Rock Hill -- and the more rural western side.

“There’s a great division in this county.....,” Senn said. “This will divide it even further.”

York resident Beth White said she believes she ought to support of the plan to buy 1,900 acres.

“I’m in favor of the land purchase, because I’m always in favor of large purchases of land for conservation,” she said.

However, she also is against tying up so much hospitality tax money. She said she would rather let the public decide.

“For such a large sum of money, why wouldn’t it go to a vote before the people?” she said.

Billy Dunlap, who leads the county visitors bureau, said it isn’t just agritourism that would be impacted. Buying the 1,900 acres would also mean a $600,000 a year cut to his budget. Dunlap said he’s conflicted, looking at a great amenity but reduced ability to sell it, and others in York County, to visitors.

“I support this purchase,” Dunlap said. “I really do. I just don’t support the impact that it will have on the convention and visitors bureau.”

Senn said the site can’t be everything for everybody, as some proponents suggest.

“If you plan to put an agritourism facility out there, then just save your money,” he said. “Because it will be — read my lips — a failure. Nobody from the western part of this county is going to go to the furthest eastern part of this county for much of anything.”

Senn also takes issue with what he feels was a secretive process to get the land deal. Council members wouldn’t say what the project was until two of three votes on it had been cast.

Senn also questioned the county’s repeated stance of not wanting to have a parks and recreation department.

“You’ve required Bethel and Lake Wylie, when they wanted to have a park, to tax themselves,” Senn said. “(Councilman William “Bump”) Roddey said, ‘I want the citizens of York County to know, we’re not a parks and recreation (department).’ Those people taxed themselves.”

The county had 50 acres donated in Lake Wylie a decade ago. A sports park is now under construction, after residents there agreed to set up a special tax district to pay for most of it. Some hospitality tax money also was used.

Roddey’s comments came from a recent council meeting when he said other parts of the county may come looking for their own park, not realizing Lake Wylie residents voted to tax themselves.

Senn said he plans to resign from the agritourism committee if the current funding plan for the 1,900 acres proceeds.

“I will not be a part of anything that I think will further divide this county, and I can assure you, this will.”

Some see a rare opportunity

York County Forever began to preserve property amid rapid development occurring in many parts of the county. The county-run land preservation commission has agreed to put $1 million into the project. Council has to approve it.

“This project is maybe a generational type project for the county,” said commission member Creighton Hayes.

The riverfront site, off Neely Store Road near the Catawba Indian Reservation, could develop to increase property values, tax revenue, recreation opportunities and economic investment, he said.

“We can’t create more land on the Catawba,” Hayes said, “But we can preserve it.”

Fellow York County Forever member and Rock Hill resident Odell Bailey said the county seldom gets an opportunity like the 1,900-acre plan offers.

“We’re going to have businesses that come into York County, and leave York County,” he said. “We’ve always had that. Well you have an opportunity this time to spend the taxpayers’ money to not only benefit us who are here now, but future generations.”

Bailey recalls Cherry and Manchester parks, both boons for Rock Hill. Bailey spoke of at least one elected official who lost a seat after the controversial vote to create Cherry Park. Now most would agree the two parks were wise decisions.

Rock Hill resident Dennis Merrell likened the land to another visionary vote. The 1964 decision to create York Technical College retooled and reequipped an entire area for generations of employment, he said.

“It opened the doors of opportunity for tens of thousands of York County citizens to develop skills needed to attract business and industry to our area,” Merrell said.

Project Destiny, as the land purchase is now called, has a similar magnitude of opportunity, he said.

“I would suggest to you that Project Destiny is different, but no less important in terms of the significance,” Merrell said.

The overall sentiment from council was, the opportunity was too good to miss.

“It was definitely a visionary type project,” Roddey said. “It was one of those type projects that I got on council to see. I didn’t get on council to plan for the next two, three, four years. I got on council to have a vision for York County.”

Not all council members agreed.

Councilman Robert Winkler, whose district covers much of western York County, voted against the land purchase at every opportunity.

“I see the potential for what it could be,” he said. “But I also still have a lot of unanswered questions.”

What will go on the property and what funding plans may be needed if hospitality tax can’t pay for it were chief among them. Yet only Winkler felt those questions warranted a vote against the purchase.

A county divided?

Council members have stated in the past there are differences between eastern and western York County -- from demographics to land development patterns.

They don’t see buying the 1,900 acres creating undue friction.

“The one thing I didn’t see was a division between east and west,” Williams said. “I hope we’re making some strides on that.”

Chairman Britt Blackwell said there are more “district-centric” comments now than when he started on council. He said the purchase would benefit all residents because the site is near major population centers, I-77 and the river.

“This is one of those actions that’s just best for the people,” he said.

The secrecy behind the project was never intended to suggest the county wasn’t being open about its intentions, Roddey said.

“If we would have let the seller know that it was county government, or any government entity, looking into it, the price would’ve went through the roof,” he said. “So that was part of the whole secrecy.”

Buying it without infrastructure also was important, he said, because if it had that infrastructure the cost would’ve been well beyond what the county could afford. Whether the site will support agritourism remains to be seen.

“If it fits, that’s one of the possibilities,” Roddey said. “We didn’t put it in, we’re not ruling it out. We haven’t put anything in. We haven’t ruled anything out.”

Cox, whose council district includes the property, said people in the high-growth end of York County had given up on such a large scale project. Getting the land ahead of growth there is what proactive, smart growth management should be, she said.

“I see this as unifying,” she said. “I see this as a huge opportunity.”

The project is, in her eyes, a way for the county to live up to its claims of caring about how land is developed.

“It’s the biggest Chrismas present we can give to the people of our community, and put action to the words that we say,” Cox said.

Most of the hospitality tax money in York County comes from the districts Michael Johnson and Allison Love represent. Those areas include restaurants in unincorporated areas from Carowinds to Baxter to Lake Wylie. Love said she and Johnson wholeheartedly support the land purchase. And it’s a sign of unity.

“There comes a point when you have to erase those district lines and you have to really be countywide,” Love said.

The decision comes down to how best to spend county money.

“This is the best use of those dollars,” Love said. “This is the best thing that’s come before us in a very long time.”

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