Warren Bolton

August 18, 2014

Bolton: No easy answer on use of St. Andrews mansion in Richland County, SC

WHILE SOME people readily embrace the saying “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” I sure wish Charles and Valerie Aiken had asked for permission before they made a considerable investment and began staging large events at the St. Andrews mansion they purchased a couple years ago.

WHILE SOME people readily embrace the saying “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” I sure wish Charles and Valerie Aiken had asked for permission before they made a considerable investment and began staging large events at the St. Andrews mansion they purchased a couple years ago.

If they had, their attempt now to win rezoning that would allow them to use the expansive mansion to host events and parties might not be embroiled in as much controversy. And they would be in a much stronger position from which to negotiate with neighbors and sway Richland County Council.

Some residents still would oppose the rezoning, and I don’t think the zoning designation the Aikens are requesting is acceptable. But critics would have a tougher time deconstructing what I think would be a compelling argument to change the use of this property to allow something other than a residence.

While some people believe that it would be wrong to turn the Aikens down because they’ve put their money into the mansion and have done a great job restoring a community blight, I don’t see it that way.

Any prospective buyer should have approached the community and the county beforehand and make this pitch: This property has been in disrepair for years. It is dilapidated and an ever-present eyesore. There have been at least three other attempts over the past two decades to have this property rezoned for some other use than a home. It’s clear no one is going to use it as a home; at 11,500 square feet and many times the size of any other home in the area, its highest, best — and reasonable — use is no longer as a residence. With its proximity to a law office and a church, it would be to the community’s advantage to work with the Aikens to agree on an acceptable use for the property. Again, something will locate at the spot; why not help determine what it will be?

As it is, residents have very compelling arguments against allowing the change: It would cause significant traffic problems, would be a source of noise and would introduce an incompatible use into a residential neighborhood and potentially invite other such uses. Residents’ biggest concern — one that is hard to rebut — is that allowing the property to be rezoned from residential to office/institutional could open the property up to a long list of future uses should it change hands. That list includes clubs or lodges, kennels, fraternity and sorority houses, various commercial uses and much more.

If the Aikens were ever to sell the property, there’s no way to guarantee what the next owner would do under the proposed new zoning designation.

I don’t know if residents or county officials would have accepted the pitch if it had been made up front by the Aikens, a wonderful couple who have contributed much to our community. But that was the proper way to do it.

As things stand, we have what might be an unresolvable stalemate in which both sides are wrongly characterized. Neighbors who object to the zoning change are seen as dream killers. Meanwhile, the Aikens are seen as opportunists who disregarded the law for their own purposes, pushing County Council into an awkward and difficult position: It must either disregard residents’ legitimate concerns or turn down an enterprise some see as beneficial and credit with having cleaned up a rundown property.

Just think of the jumbled mess we’d have in communities across the county if all owners opened whatever enterprise they wanted on their property and waited to ask for proper approval later. When we choose to live together under a common government, we agree to abide by the laws. Zoning laws are in place to protect and preserve existing communities while also giving developers and others an understanding of what they can do with property they own or intend to purchase and develop.

The residential zoning on the mansion on Elm Abode Terrace doesn’t allow some of the activity the Aikens have engaged in; that’s why the county zoning administrator ordered the Aikens in March to stop using the home as a bed and breakfast inn and events venue. It’s also why a code enforcement officer issued a ticket to Mrs. Aiken in June for failure to comply with permitted uses.

That’s why the best thing to have done was to seek permission in advance — not after two years of bucking county law and ruffling the feathers of many neighbors.

While the Aikens have characterized their activities as gatherings for family, friends and nonprofits, neighbors describe large parties that cause parking, traffic and noise problems.

Meanwhile the attempt to get the property rezoned was deferred at a July 22 council meeting.

That said, the neighbors aren’t all opposed to the use the Aikens propose. At the public hearing, residents who said they lived in the front and the back of the property stated they favored the change. One reason cited was that a sizable, dilapidated piece of property considered a hazard had been refurbished and turned into an asset.

But while it’s true that the property has been improved, that’s not reason enough to allow a zoning change. Whatever the council allows to take place on this property could bring a big and permanent change in the way residents in this community live.

There’s no clear solution for this matter: County staff recommended the rezoning be approved, but the planning commission recommended it be rejected. The council delayed a decision until Sept. 23 at the behest of Councilman Paul Livingston, who represents the area. Mr. Livingston said it’s a very delicate and difficult matter that’s not easily resolved. He said what the office/institutional zoning could allow into the community is particularly troublesome. His hope is that the Aikens and the community could somehow work things out.

Short of an answer dipped in the wisdom of Solomon — does anyone have one? — the onus is on the Aikens to mend fences and try to work something out with neighbors.

At the same time, residents should understand that the pressure to allow a new use for this property isn’t going to go away. Some enterprise is going to take root there one day. The question is whether residents will work with the property owner to determine what that is or whether a council simply changes the zoning, giving them no recourse. And who is to say that the current council won’t do just that?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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