Trying to maintain a way of life: Blue Ridge development battle has wins and losses
March 3rd, 2020
By Angelia L. Davis, Greenville News
Blue Ridge landowners won their latest battle to have an "incompatible" subdivision denied for their rural area.
But in the future, they may have to find new weapons to fight unwanted development.
The Greenville County Planning staff said, as it relates to density, the county comprehensive plan and Article 3.1, a rule in its Land Development Regulations, do not apply to unzoned areas like Blue Ridge, an unincorporated region north of Greer.
Planning commissioners grappled with that knowledge before ultimately denying the proposed Oakvale subdivision off State 14 in Blue Ridge because a requested variance for emergency vehicle access into the development was "inappropriate."
Then they denied the preliminary plan for Oakvale because the variance had been denied.
The listed developer, Tim Kallianian of SK Builders, was in a meeting when The Greenville News contacted him by phone, a woman at his office said. He had not returned a phone call to the Greenville News.
'Correct outcome' reached despite surprising process
Michael Corley, an environmental lawyer who represented Blue Ridge area landowners in opposing the project, said the correct outcome was reached in denying a subdivision that "makes no sense for the area."
But, he said, the process in which that decision was reached was surprising and very hard to follow as a lawyer.
Corley had argued that Oakvale was inconsistent with the recently approved county comprehensive plan and with two factors in Article 3.1 of LDR.
That rule allows planners to reject subdivisions that are not "compatible with the surrounding land use density" or the site's environmental conditions.
The comprehensive plan, a guide to help shape growth, designates the Blue Ridge area as rural and used primarily for crops pasture, woods, working farms and associated residences, Corley said.
He also said the comprehensive plan makes known that the minimal development on rural property means residential lots on two or more acres.
Oakvale, the denied subdivision
Oakvale was proposed on roughly 18 acres and with half acre lots. The residential lots that directly border the site between State 14 and Forrester Road are, on average, 10 acres, Corley said.
The existing density in this community matches the vision for future density in the comprehensive plan and neither of those things are close to Oakvale, he said.
The subdivision crosses into Article 3.1 territory in that its half-acre lots are inconsistent with surrounding land uses. The request for a variance, he said, is also evidence that the subdivision’s design is not consistent with environmental conditions, another factor reason for denial.
“The developer can’t meet an important requirement of the LDR because of the environmental resources on the site,” Corley said.
“To take that to its logical and legal conclusion, it’s impossible to vote to grant the variance and conclude that Oakvale is consistent,” he said.
Waverly Wilkes, a site engineer at Gray Engineering, told planners that within two miles of the Oakvale site, there are neighborhoods similar to what was proposed for Oakvale.
She said Oakvale is “a good fit” for the area and there are neighborhoods similar to it within two miles of the subdivision site.
When asked if she thought the developer would consider a change in density, Wilkes' response was "I think this is the best option for them and the septic requirements. To look at something different, he would have to start from scratch again."
Comprehensive plan on density doesn't apply to an unzoned area
Planning Commission Chairman Jay Rogers asked if there was a different comprehensive plan because the density proposed in Oakvale does seem to be "a little more so than what we would go for?"
He was cautioned by members of the planning staff that while there is a comprehensive plan and the comprehensive plan is talking about density, it doesn't apply to an unzoned area.
In an unzoned area, you can't really used density as the measure from which you would deny or approve a project, said Greenville County Subdivision Administrator Rashida Jefffers-Campbell.
That basically means they're allowed to do what they want to do with their property within the parameters of the land development regulations which allows at least seven units per acre, she said.
Rogers said he was a little confused on why density is in the comprehensive plan "if we're supposed to ignore it?"
"If they don’t have zoning, you can’t hold them to zoning requirements outside of what is provided for in the LDR," Jefffers-Campbell said.
"I think you find yourself getting in trouble saying the property owner (in an unzoned area) is not allowed to use their property that way because of density," Jeffers-Campbell said. "Density is a zoning issue and if they don't have zoning you can't hold them to zoning requirements."
Paula Gucker, assistant county administrator for community planning, said the staff had a discussion with the county attorney about the issue with density and Article 3.1 because it's come up before.
Like Jeffers-Campbell, she said, "you can’t transfer density into the unzoned areas because density is very specific to zoning and not the unzoned area."
'Shocked' at what the county staff had to say
Corley was "shocked" to hear what county staff had to say about the comprehensive plan and Article 3.1.
"I think that statement was just flat out wrong and inconsistent with the plain language of the land development regulations," he said. "The idea that you can't consider density in rural parts of the county, that would spell demise for many rural communities."
When it comes to unzoned areas of the county, "one of the problems is there are very few tools to oppose a bad subdivision," Corley said.
"The two that I can think of is Article 3.1 and the comprehensive plan," he said. "From what we heard in that meeting, they are not to be considered in unzoned areas."
He questioned the point of Article 3.1 if not to apply to unzoned areas with a look at density.
"It requires compatibility with surrounding land-use density," he said. "There's nothing about it that doesn't apply to subdivisions in unzoned areas.
The remedy may be zoning
Greenville County Councilman Lynn Ballard, too, said density is a direct outcome of zoning and when an area is not zoned, density can't be a deciding factor.
It's an issue that people in his District 26 have also struggled with, he said. The remedy is zoning, he said.
Ballard cites a 2018 issue when a developer bought 80 acres of property and wanted to build a subdivision called "Copper Leaf." "People didn't want it and we told them they couldn't stop it because it wasn't zoned," Ballard said."
There are people in District 26 who are like those in District 17, which encompasses some of the Blue Ridge region, in that they don't want zoning and don't want anyone telling them what to do with their property, Ballard said.
A lawsuit was filed because the subdivision was approved by the planning commission, Ballard said. The case is still in court, he said.
But an outgrowth of that attempt has resulted in 7,700 acres of property being zoned rural in that district, Ballard said.
Movement to ensure the region retains rural, peaceful character
Issues similar to Oakvale aren't the first to come up in District 17.
The group Corley is representing, Blue Ridge SC Neighborhood Development Watch!, consists of landowners who are fighting to ensure that the region retains its rural, peaceful character.
The group as formed in 2018 after Beth Webb McClintock noticed the orange proposed subdivision sign parked across from her home.
She attended the Greenville County Planning Commission meetings and spoke out against the Wood Ridge development which would have put 20-plus homes on 12 acres, across from her house which sits on four acres.
She fought it using Article 3.1. The project was eventually denied and a new movement was started.
The Blue Ridge Development Watch Group works to keep one another informed on possible developments that threaten the quality of life there as they know it.
After Wood Ridge, another subdivision was proposed — Echo Valley — near State 253 and State 290.
“We worked hard and people spoke (at the meetings),” said Judy Stella, one of the administrators of the group’s Facebook page.
That effort, too, paid off, she said. The third proposed subdivision is when the problems began.
“The planning commission did not deny it but it should have been because it was a small lot with many homes with lots of acreage around it,” Stella said.
She is happy with the outcome of Oakvale but said she knows "they will be back. Everyone wants to live here."
Some in her group do not want zoning, which county and Greer city leaders have recommended.
In unzoned territory, owners are allowed to do what they want with their property in the parameters of the land development regulations which allows at least seven units per acre, said Jeffers-Campbell during the planning commissioners public hearing.
Owner of Oakvale's proposed site: 'People want to live here'
Jerry Bruce, owner of the 20-acre site on which Oakvale was proposed, believes Oakvale is a project that would enhance the community.
"This is one of the fastest growing greatest communities in the United States and I understand why people want to live here."
Corley said he hopes the county will reevaluate the position they seem to be taking on Article 3.1 and density "because it conflicts with the plain law and its definitely bad for our rural communities."
Ballard said there's a lot of discussion going on about that particular regulation right now.
"As I understand it, the county is getting ready to re-evaluate all the landuse ordinances now that there is a new comprehensive plan to "make sure everything speaks to each other in the same language so to speak," he said.