Plan for new Birch County stirs questions, passion

tflach@thestate.comMarch 25, 2013 

Birch County

CITIZENS FOR BIRCH COUNTY — Facebook

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    Supporters of the plan for a new county will discuss the idea at 6:30 tonight at the Cotton House, 7777 St. Andrews Road, Irmo.

— Barbara Judd of Little Mountain is ready to sever ties with Richland County.

She’s excited at the prospect of creating a new county on the north side of Lake Murray, a project she sees as a way to assure lower taxes and less growth.

“Everybody here wants to be left alone,” Judd said.

Supporters of the plan hope to capitalize on sentiment like that for an idea that political leaders say faces long odds.

The first details of the proposal — including its leadership — will be outlined Tuesday.

“We want to hear from everybody, pro and con, or who wants to know more,” said Scott Malyerck, a Republican consultant who is a spokesman for the group.

Their idea would combine part of north Lexington County with the northwest corner of Richland County, but the neighborhoods and number of residents affected are fluid.

Informally, the plan is dubbed Birch County after the three main communities in the area — Ballentine, Irmo and Chapin.

Advocates are silent so far on how to overcome what could be a major stumbling block — an apparent state limit on the number of counties at 46.

The alternative, an unsigned ad in weekly newspapers says, might be an effort instead to move the northwest tip of Richland County, called Spring Hill by its residents, into adjoining Lexington County.

It’s unknown how the plan would affect the makeup of the Lexington-Richland 5 school board, whose seven members are allotted between the two counties.

Community leaders are taking a hands-off approach on the proposal, warning it is more complicated and costly than supporters realize.

“I don’t see how it ever can be a benefit,” Chapin Mayor Stan Shealy said. “To me, it’s a pipe dream.”

Irmo town councilman Barry A. Walker Sr. said the idea is impractical, adding, “it doesn’t buy us anything.”

“I’m willing to listen to see if there are any advantages, but I’m very skeptical that it can actually work,” said Richland County councilman Bill Malinowski, who represents the northwest corner of the county.

Leaders of the Ballentine-Dutch Fork Civic Association — whose effort to incorporate Ballentine in 2008 failed — have many questions.

“It’s easy to get disenchanted about things,” association president Les Tweed said. “But if you haven’t done your homework, you’re just spinning your wheels.”

Spring Hill residents insist the idea is more than a daydream.

Judd is angry at the new penny sales tax for transportation in Richland County, saying “we’re being forced to pay for things that benefit downtown Columbia, not us.”

Problems in the conduct of the November ballot at which the tax passed meant opponents “got rooked” because many people declined to wait hours to vote, she said.

Finally, she is angry at creeping development that she says will alter dramatically the rural area if left unchecked.

“We want to keep it as it is,” Judd said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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