A plan to shrink the biggest hole in Rock Hill is moving forward despite business owners there saying they don’t want to be included.
Rock Hill City Council on Monday night gave approval 4-3 for annexation of an almost 80-acre site in and around Rock Hill Industrial Park. Council members John Black, Jim Reno and Kevin Sutton voted against. Council is the listed applicant on the annexation and rezoning request.
Several business owners said during the public hearing they don’t want to be annexed, or were forced into signing off on it.
“I’m not sure what benefit there would be for us to be in the city limits,” said Tillman Music owner Todd Tillman, a tenant since 1981. “It seems like there would only be added expenses or some sort of cost to our business.”
A donut hole
The 13 parcels run along Anderson, Mt. Gallant, Huey and Midland roads and Langston Street include nine industrial building sites, two commercial, outdoor storage and a parking lot. It includes more than 30 addresses, with some multi-tenant sites.
Some of the land is Twenty One Plaza, but most of it is in Rock Hill Industrial Park, built in the 1960s just outside the city.
“Today this area is surrounded by major portions of the Rock Hill city limits, including the Manchester Village, Galleria Mall and Riverwalk developments,” said Bill Meyer, city planning and development director.
The industrial park is in the middle of about 900 acres in York County surrounded by city limits. The park touches more than 200 acres eyed for the Carolina Panthers planned practice site move from Charlotte to Rock Hill.
“The city seeks to annex areas in these so called donut holes in order to provide more efficient services for all area residents,” Meyer said. “In such cases, the city generally has resources already covering these areas that are more readily available than those that are serving the unincorporated areas.”
Resources include police, recreation, land use and stormwater planning, but the biggest public service is water and sewer.
Rock Hill has service agreements with water and sewer users outside city limits that calls for those users to approve annexation if the city requests it. Three-quarters of the property owners who own three-quarters of the property value in an area are needed to apply for annexation. The current plan has 78% of the property owners accounting for 83% of the value.
“In most cases, signatures on these petitions are required under the city’s standard water and sewer service agreement, which requires owners to sign an annexation petition when the city determines that annexation is appropriate,” Meyer said.
Property owner Mike Bagwell said he was forced to sign a water agreement after a restaurant moved out or risk a tenant losing water service.
“Forcing people to do things like this, it’s not right,” Bagwell said during Monday’s hearing. “I was forced to sign this thing or I’d had my water cut off.”
Rock Hill attorney Keith Martens, who sits on the city planning commission, recused himself from the annexation call. He has been retained by several property owners upset about the annexation.
“We’re asking this council to honor the commitments that your predecessors on the city council made,” Martens said.
Martens said the initial council agreement to serve the industrial park with water and sewer service was made in a 40-year term with language suggesting it could be extended and binding “forever.”
“Forever is a long time, but that’s the deal that this city made in 1963 to lure businesses into this community,” Martens said.
Martens said there is nothing in covenants or deeds to alert property owners that accepting a water and sewer agreement means accepting annexation.
“In order for these property owners to continue receiving water and sewer service from the city, something they were already entitled to under this 1963 contract, the city has been requiring these owners to consent to annexation,” Martens said. “We believe these water and sewer agreements are unenforceable in light of the 1963 contract.
“We believe the manner in which the city has attempted to coerce annexation of these properties is at best heavy-handed, and at worst unlawful and invalid,” he said.
Business owner Joe Morris said he worries about additional costs if annexed.
“We’re just working on getting our business up, started growing, and it would be a substantial amount to be able to take in,” he said.
Bagwell, who has been there more than 40 years, said property owners there wouldn’t request annexation “because they’re just going to pay more money for something they already have.”
Meyer told Council the property owners petitioning for annexation is made up of city utility customers.
“All of these people signed the agreements in order to secure utilities,” Meyer said.
Meyer said not all costs are going up. The industrial park properties include separate fire service agreements at $1,258 per year, plus the county fire tax levy. Annexation will mean savings, Meyers said.
“The special city fire service fee and the county fire levy will go away upon annexation, and fire service will be covered under the standard city tax millage rate,” he said.
To annex property, a municipality needs it to be contiguous, meaning it has to touch existing city limits. The industrial park annexation touches property talked about for the Panthers move. County property records do not show it as recently sold.
City leaders, however, say the Panthers site already touches city limits along I-77 and Eden Terrace. So city wouldn’t need the industrial site property to annex the Panthers site, if and when that land comes up for a decision. If the city annexes the industrial park and Panthers sites, it would close the biggest donut hole in the city.
Future annexation of the Panthers site may not hinge on the current proposal, but Martens points to the the recent pep rally in Rock Hill when Mayor John Gettys joined S.C. Gov Henry McMaster touting the team’s move as a sign of a pro-business area.
“You have an opportunity to prove that this city is not just interested in attracting businesses like the Carolina Panthers,” he said. “This city is also committed to supporting and retaining the businesses that make this a great community.”