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January 11, 2013

Push under way to create new county north of Lake Murray

Anti-tax fervor is spawning an effort to create a new Midlands county on the north side of Lake Murray.

The plan taking shape would combine the northwest corner of Richland County and much, if not all, of the northern edge of Lexington County.

It is spearheaded by a group of community leaders in Ballentine, Irmo and Chapin who are mainly upset with taxes.

The area is a blend of rural and suburban neighborhoods, many of whose residents say they have little in common with downtown Columbia and more urban parts of the area.

Supporters call their proposed creation Birch County after those communities, though the name could change.

Renewed interest in the longtime dream of conservatives — many of them Republicans — stems from the recent adoption of a sales tax increase in Richland County for transportation and interest in doing that in Lexington County.

“That seems to be the thing reigniting the flame for it,” said Scott Malyerck, a Republican consultant who is a spokesman for the group.

Voters in the 25 precincts in northwest Richland County lined up 56 percent against the sales tax hike at the Nov. 6 ballot, according to Adam Fogle, an adviser for tax supporters.

Besides taxes, some advocates of the plan are upset with development controls and social restrictions, Malyerck said.

The goal is to create a county “with less taxes, more efficient services,” he said.

Some community leaders call the idea impractical.

Still, it is a warning that the area feels like a neglected stepchild forced to support unwanted causes, they agree.

“If they want to send a statement, this is a way to do it,” GOP political consultant R.J. Shealy said. “It is a message they want heard.”

Others view the move as a temper tantrum.

“It’s quite unreasonable to try to secede if you have a problem,” Lexington County Councilman Brad Matthews of Irmo said.

Success is unlikely, community leaders sympathetic to the complaints but not involved with the effort said.

“It’s like something coming to fruition in a dream and then waking up and realizing it’s only a dream,” Irmo Mayor Hardy King said. “It will be hard to get this off the ground.”

The effort would create the 47th county in South Carolina. It probably would be the smallest geographically but could be home to 50,000 people.

Making the idea happen requires several steps.

Its creation would occur after approval by two-thirds of voters in the area at a referendum that could happen only if a third of the same group requests it through petitions. Then federal officials would have to approve the step as part of their oversight of voting rights in the South.

Those are major hurdles, King said.

“It may not happen,” Malyerck said. “But we’re at the point where we need to look at the idea.”

The last county created from others is Allendale, 75 miles southeast of Columbia, in 1919.

For now, those behind the plan are a mystery.

All Malyerck will say is that it is the brainchild of a few dozen business and civic leaders who are not household names.

Many questions remain about the plan for a new county. Among them:

• How soon will a petition effort start?
• When could a referendum happen?
• What is the specific area affected?
• If created, how would it be run?
• What services would be provided and at what cost?
• Would Chapin or Irmo — the only municipalities in the area — be the county seat? Or would a new community for that purpose be formed?
• Will the area have to repay Richland and Lexington counties for public facilities that would be transferred?

Those will take time to answer, Malyerck said.

“We don’t have our ducks in a row,” he said. “All that sort of technical stuff will have to be worked out.”

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