The Panthers scored a 5-2 win in Rock Hill Tuesday. Here’s why it wasn’t unanimous.

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The plan to put Carolina Panthers headquarters and practice facilities in Rock Hill took a big step forward earlier this week. But not by unanimous vote.

The city planning commission voted 5-2 Tuesday night to annex the more than 200-acre Hutchison family site on I-77 where the team plans to build, and rezone the land for a variety of uses. The commission then voted unanimously in favor of a land development agreement presented by the team.

Both decisions now go to city council, tentatively set for Nov. 25.

“We are a recommending body, to city council,” said Randy Graham, planning commission chairman. “We are not the final vote.”

Several commission members, even those who ultimately voted in favor or annexation and rezoning, expressed concerns despite overall support for the project. At issue were two proposed uses not allowed by state law — gambling venues and bars selling alcohol past 2 a.m. — and two more that don’t fit current Rock Hill laws.

Rock Hill has a smoking ordinance that prohibits cigar bars, requested by the team as a possible use. The city doesn’t allow tattoo or body piercing businesses, which the team wants allowed as a potential use to go with a salon, grooming business, or something similar.

Graham, who along with commission member Duane Christopher voted against the annexation and rezoning recommendation, said he is 98% behind the full project.

“I have some concerns about the precedent that we set,” he said.

Allowing something state law doesn’t, even if allowing it is contingent on state law changing, created concern. As did allowing a cigar bar or tattoo shop.

“As excited as everyone is, and as much of a major project as this is, and as much of a boost to the Rock Hill area and economy as this is, we can’t show preferential treatment just because of that,” Graham said.

Leah Youngblood, city planning and zoning manager, said there is an equity issue to be addressed.

“We’ve had, I can think of two different people who wanted to open cigar bars just this summer,” she said. “We had to say ‘no.’ We’ve had one person lobby city council for a tattoo use for months now, and we’ve had to say ‘no’.”

Several commission members said they didn’t have a personal problem with some of those uses, but recognized laws have to be followed. Christopher did express concern with one use he doesn’t see fitting in the otherwise family-oriented project.

“I’m not really that enthused about the gaming and betting,” he said. “I think that brings in way too much. We’ve had that discussion and arguments in our community and in our state for a number of years. It’s just a different element.”

Commission member Justin Smith didn’t have issue recommending the full plan presented from the team, knowing state law would limit some uses, unless it’s changed, and city council can make a call on its local rules.

“I find it silly that we’re going to hang it up a little bit over something we have no control over,” he said.

Smith did have concerns about what precedent the Panthers decision might set.

“I don’t take issue with anything they requested,” he said. “But how does that move forward with any other thing that comes before us? Are we setting a precedent by allowing a master plan to take these things on?”

Commission member Keith Martens acknowledged it’s an odd task deciding on something state law disallows.

“How do we recommend something that is currently illegal?” he said.

The four sticking points for planners are a relatively small part of what Panthers COO Mark Hart continues to call a transformative project for Rock Hill and York County. The team complex will have indoor and outdoor training, events venues, hotels and apartments.

“We’re talking about the nature of this development, its size, its scale,” Hart said. “We want this to be a positive impact to the community.”

Hart also said the team will listen to the Rock Hill community as it steers from concept to schematic design.

“We’re very open-minded,” he said. “If things can be improved from what we’re talking about, we’ll hear and consider every recommendation, every adjustment to this project, that makes it better.”

Team representative Jeff Brown told the planning commission some of the requests are based on anticipation of possible law changes.

“Participation in sports entertainment gaming and betting is increasing at a rapid pace, and legal acceptance is increasingly being considered across the country,” he said.

Much like the plan asks for the possibility of transit stations in the event light rail comes, even years after the initial phase opens, the request for gaming and drinking later into the morning could make future development easier should rules change.

“We realize this is a long-term vision and there would be a lot of planning and efforts that go into that, but we’re trying to be forward-thinking,” Brown said.

Youngblood sees many features with the Panthers plan that haven’t been proposed before in Rock Hill. A special events plan would need to be developed before the first major event, which could include anything from concerts to sports tournaments to a team draft party. The proposal includes ideas like projections on buildings, electronic message boards, color-changing lighting, light canons, special effects, video boards and scoreboards.

With the four sticking points remaining, city staff and the team agree there is room for discussion.

“We’re still working with the applicant on some mutually agreeable language,” Youngblood said.

Even with concerns, no one on the commission or present at their meeting had a problem with the project at large. Many said it can change Rock Hill for the better.

Keith Rains, a civil engineer here 20 years, helped survey the corridor for the new interchange on I-77. Along with work for businesses like his, Rains is glad to see the increased profile Rock Hill will have once the Panthers arrive.

“We’re excited about this opportunity for just the impact of what this is going to do for our community,” he said.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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