A compromise path for the disputed Gills Creek greenway has won over some residents, but others are still determined to defeat the $2.2 million penny sales tax project.
The 1.3-mile greenway is planned to start at Kilbourne Road and Fort Jackson Boulevard and run south along the creek until just beyond Rosewood Drive and South Beltline Boulevard.
Last week, Richland County officials laid out a plan that would divert a half-mile section of the pathway away from neighborhoods that most loudly protested the path. A greenway would attract the homeless and criminals, they said, and step on the privacy homeowners selected when they bought homes there long ago.
The change moves the greenway to the creek’s western bank from its eastern bank starting at Rosewood Drive south, until Mikell Lane off South Beltline Boulevard. There, the greenway parallels the creek and the Gills Creek Parkway road.
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But even that compromise isn’t winning over some people.
“It’s like choosing between a firing squad and the electric chair,” retired University of South Carolina literature professor Joseph Katz said after last week’s public presentation of the new plan at Dreher High School. “If it actually has to be built and cannot be stopped, then, yes, it’s better to have it built on the western bank than the eastern bank.”
Katz lives in Hampton Ridge, one of several upscale “Hamptons” neighborhoods behind the Dorn Veterans Administration Hospital off Garners Ferry Road. The Hampton Leas and Hampton Creek neighborhoods have led the opposition.
Katz and his wife bought their house almost three decades ago because they wanted a serene life where the creek babbles and deer mosey through their back yard.
He prefers the project, designed to allow Midlands residents more access to the creek that runs through much of Columbia, be elsewhere.
But those who want to kill the whole idea of the greenway are pressing ahead. The Crosshill community, near Whole Foods Market, began circulating an online petition Tuesday to block the controversial project.
Other residents understand the invasion of privacy that some people feel but some see the greenway as a needed amenity they will enjoy and a means to improving their property values.
“Anytime you can add places for people to walk, that’s great,” said Sabrina Todd, who bought her home off South Beltline Boulevard more than 15 years ago. “I think it’s a great option.”
One of the biggest concerns about the greenway has been who will manage it and keep it safe, said County Councilman Greg Pearce, whose district includes the stretch of the creek slated to get the greenway.
Those concerns have been raised over and over again and are the key to the success of any greenway, Pearce said.
County transportation director Rob Perry said the city of Columbia has committed to provide those services in the portion of the greenway that would be inside city limits.
But City Council has yet to vote to adopt that plan or to allocate the $512,000 needed, city leaders said.
The majority of the money would go toward hiring five more park rangers, including a supervisor, said Columbia parks director Randy Davis. The rangers would not be entry-level positions, said city engineer Dana Higgins.
But the proposed budget is not just for Gills Creek. It also is for the new Saluda River greenway, Davis said.
If council approves the plan, the city would buy about $169,000 in vehicles and equipment for use along the greenways, Davis said.
Pushback against greenway
The compromise path for the Gills Creek greenway has yet to be finalized by Richland County Council. When council will vote has not been determined.
The greenway is to be built using money from the controversial, voter-approved, one-cent sales tax increase for the improvement of roads, pedestrian and biking trails and the metropolitan bus system. The tax is to generate about $1 billion during about 20 years.
The nearly 250 people who showed up at the high school are part of the public input into a final decision. Those who did not attend have until 5 p.m. March 9 to write their assessments of the compromise.
As of Wednesday, nearly 300 people had submitted responses, penny tax spokeswoman Nicole Smith said. A summary of those remarks will be provided to a County Council committee around the end of April, Perry said.
The director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, which backs the plan, called Friday for supporters to speak up. “A few naysayers (I’m trying to be nice here) are trying to kill this whole project,” Erich Miarka posted on Facebook, adding, “so we need as many positive comments as possible.”
Pearce and Perry say some opponents are intentionally misleading people.
“Some person or persons have been trying to sabotage (the greenway) by putting out disinformation,” Pearce said.
Coming from the address “pennytaxgreenwayterribleidea,” emails circulated among neighbors cited “inside sources” as saying the greenway route will change and could return to a previous proposal to take it “within feet” of properties in the Hamptons and the Old Woodlands neighborhoods. That email also asserted that “access points” will be added in those well-to-do neighborhoods. Pearce supplied copies of some of the emails to The State newspaper.
An email circulated the day before the Dreher meeting cited an unnamed source as saying her or she had a “very in depth conversation with someone involved in the planning” of the project. That email also said that extending the pathway from Forest Drive to Quail Lane “has secretly gained momentum and has been put on the fast track to possibly starting this year.”
A Jan. 31 email included links to news accounts in Charlotte, Durham and Chattanooga of crimes along greenways, including the rape of a woman in Charlotte who was walking her dog.