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Building Our City | City’s quick action a blow to Fed plan to block developer

On the surface, Cayce’s annexation of more than 3,000 acres in Richland County looks like a land grab — a small town punching its big neighbor, Columbia, in the nose.

But that’s just the under card.

The main bout — and the secret reason behind little Cayce’s snatching of the 3,113 acres formerly known as Green Diamond — is a high-stakes fight between heavyweight developers and the federal government.

And it’s a fight that might not be resolved for years.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is quietly working to reinstate flood maps that would, in effect, ban development from most of the Green Diamond property — an action that could come as early as Jan. 14, The State has learned.

The Cayce annexation is likely the first round in property owner Columbia Venture’s efforts to stall that reinstatement, appeal the map and knock it out.

“The annexation means they live to fight another day,” said Bob Wislinski, a spokesman for the Congaree Task Force, which opposes development on the property. “Their deal is still alive.”

Richland County and Columbia passed on Green Diamond because of concerns about who would be liable if levees built to protect any development failed and hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded.

The annexations “mean Cayce is at least considering levees, and that’s a victory for Columbia Ventures,” Wislinski said.

It also gives some Cayce residents quiet pride that their little burg can play hardball in the Midlands’ rough-and-tumble development game. It’s the town’s third jab at Columbia, coming on the heels of SCANA’s announced move from Columbia’s Main Street to Cayce’s 12th Street, and the State Farmers Market’s relocating from Bluff Road to Cayce.

But if FEMA is successful in having the land re-designated as a flood zone, the rosy glow coming from the West Bank could dim. Any development in Green Diamond, now called Vista Farms, might again be problematic.

“We don’t know if anything will be developed there; we haven’t seen a plan,” Cayce city administrator John Sharpe said. “We’re just annexing the property, and if it can be developed according to FEMA regulations, then it’s a win-win.”

THE FIGHT

The fight has played out like this so far:

 A flood map drawn up by FEMA in 2001 discounts the homemade levees that protect the Columbia Venture property from flooding. As a result, Richland County bans all development from the land.

 A federal judge throws out the new map in 2005 because FEMA didn’t properly advertise a public comment period in the Federal Register. The technicality re-opens, from a federal perspective, the land for development. But Richland County’s ban holds.

 Cayce’s annexation trumps Richland County’s ban, making development possible, if the town wants it. “It allows us to control what happens over there,” Mayor Avery Wilkerson said.

 FEMA, to rectify its prior mistake, on Oct. 16 advertises for public comment in the Federal Registry, documents show. FEMA then could have reinstated the 2001 map and taken the land out of play — had Cayce not annexed the property.

“It’s a fix,” said John Grego, a USC statistics professor and president of Friend of the Congaree Swamp, who has been a key player in the determination of the flood maps for a decade. “But it’s only a partial fix.”

A FEMA spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on its efforts because the issue is in litigation.

That public comment period signaled the start of a new round in the fight.

“Everything has been in suspended animation” since the judge’s decision in 2005, said Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, which has opposed development of the property in court from the beginning.

“But things are starting to move,” he said.

FEMA’s public comment period has been the best-kept secret of the annexation saga.

Cayce officials initially said they were rushing to annex the property before the first of the year to reap property taxes on the land. But Richland County tax records show the land would have garnered only $15,306.41.

“It’s agricultural use, so it pays virtually nothing,” said Richland County tax assessor John Cloyd.

Cayce officials on Friday admitted that Thursday’s annexation vote was, partially, rushed to beat the Jan. 14 deadline.

“We were familiar with the comment period and the deadlines ... and discussed them in executive session,” Sharpe said. “The annexation (votes) folded in those dates.”

STARTING OVER

In 2001, Columbia Venture was announced as a partnership between local land owner Deas Manning, Myrtle Beach developers Burroughs & Chapin, The South Financial Group (parent company of Greenville-based Carolina First bank) and others.

The Columbia Venture LLC does not list partners with the S.C. secretary of state’s office. And since 2001, officials have declined to name them or any changes in ownership.

But Cayce’s annexation is a victory for the group, whatever its makeup now.

The public comment period that began Oct. 16 legally covered property in unincorporated Richland County. Now that the land is in the Cayce city limits, FEMA has to start the public comment period over — pushing the deadline back an additional 90 days.

And if the 2001 map is reinstated after the new comment period, Columbia Venture likely would appeal — this time with Cayce as a partner willing to at least consider development.

Columbia Venture project manager Bob Hughes said it could be the start of a long battle.

“We’re looking at a seven-year process,” he said. “We’re starting over, but we’re starting over with a fair government.”

But in the meantime, other hurdles are developing.

Columbia Mayor Bob Coble has said the Capital City will not provide Vista Farms with water, so Cayce would have to extend its water system across the Congaree River to the property.

And Columbia likely will not allow a new levee system to tie into levees now protecting the Columbia sewer plant, which is adjacent to Vista Farms.

“The city is not interested in the liability of residential and commercial development in a floodway,” Coble said. “It’s not something we would pursue, so it’s not something we thought would go somewhere else.”

Despite the uncertainty over water and liability, Cayce might decide to allow levees and some development anyway. Sharpe said some of the property — about 500 acres — is high and dry, even under the 2001 map.

But environmentalists and others then likely would counter with an injunction, attempting to stop Cayce and Columbia Venture from moving ahead.

“We would have to consider it,” said Holman, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

It all could be very bloody.

But Cayce city administrator Sharpe said the town is willing to go the distance.

He noted that the last big annexation the town embarked upon — the 2,500 acres around 12th Street that attracted SCANA — occurred in 1976 and is just now coming to fruition.

“It could be a five- or 10-year process to get this thing (Vista Farms) going,” he said. “But we’re here for the long term.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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