Plan for new county in Midlands gains traction

tflach@thestate.comMarch 26, 2013 

Birch County


— Interest in creation of a new county on the north side of Lake Murray gathered steam Tuesday as a small group of supporters agreed to start laying the groundwork for the idea.

“Changes need to be made,” Ron Homan of the Spring Hill area said. “I’m excited about people starting to get together to do something about it.”

The plan that will be developed initially will look at mirroring the boundary of Lexington-Richland 5 schools that include Chapin, Irmo, Dutch Fork, Harbison and St. Andrews.

Secession fever stems from unhappiness among some residents in the largely rural northwest tip of Richland County who feel little in common with its more urban neighborhoods.

Although billed as nonpolitical, the session sometimes resembled a conservative pep rally.

“It has grown too big,” Bill Able of Ballentine said of Richland County centered in Columbia 20 miles southeast. “It has distanced itself. It’s time we took back government, and this is one way to do it.”

Former Lexington County auditor Art Guerry echoed that sentiment. “Lexington County is a little too big and the same with Richland,” he said.

Another endorsement came from former Lexington-Richland 5 school board member Kim Murphy, who promised she and friends will assist it.

Others among the 40 people in at the gathering are unhappy with the recent sales tax increase for transportation in Richland County, growth spreading their way too fast and irregular borders that confuse police, fire and ambulances service.

Forming a new county is difficult, said Scott Malyerck, a Republican consultant advising the effort.

“There are worlds of hurdles to overcome,” he said, listing requirements such as acquiring signatures on petitions to set up a ballot that requires two-thirds approval to succeed after a study gauging if the plan is workable.

It may also need legislative approval to increase what seems to be a limit of 46 counties that currently exist, he said.

All those requirements mean “it’s going to take a while,” he said.

It’s possible that momentum will shift to merging the Richland County part of the area with adjoining Lexington County, a step that is “a lot easier” but still will require petitions and a ballot, he said.

The area once was all in Lexington County but portions were shifted to Richland County in the late1800s for reasons that are unclear, historical records show.

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

Some neighborhood leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach on the idea, wanting to know more about features yet to be determined such as taxes and operating costs.

“It takes a lot of enthusiasm to move it ahead,” said Les Tweed, president of the Ballentine-Dutch Fork Civic Association. “It takes a lot to make it happen.”

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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