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Ambitious annexation plan means the city of Columbia might be headed your way

Bobby Williams, CEO of the Lizard’s Thicket restaurant chain, stands at the Garners Ferry Road restaurant. The road is a likely candidate for annexation as Columbia City Council considers areas to target as part of a more assertive annexation campaign in 2017.
Bobby Williams, CEO of the Lizard’s Thicket restaurant chain, stands at the Garners Ferry Road restaurant. The road is a likely candidate for annexation as Columbia City Council considers areas to target as part of a more assertive annexation campaign in 2017. tglantz@thestate.com

If you live on the outer edges of Columbia along Garners Ferry Road, North Main Street/Killian Road or south of Olympia around USC’s football stadium, the city of Columbia might be coming your way.

The pieces are in place for Columbia to start an aggressive annexation campaign early next year that would take in the “gateways” to the city and widen the city’s tax base.

Not everyone wants to live in a city, so in some areas, it will be a careful conversation on a sensitive topic.

In some ways, it might be just in time. Charleston, which has been aggressively annexing, next year is set to surpass Columbia as the most populous city in South Carolina.

Columbia took a first big step in November. The city hired an annexation coordinator to be the face of a door-to-door effort to attract residential and commercial property owners.

“There is a great sales pitch to be made for citizens ... as to why it’s better to be in the city,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

Among the key selling points: The city claims in a “benefits of annexation” brochure that typical homeowners will save 40 percent per year, or $249 on average, on their water and sewer bills. That gain will offset higher tax bills that come with being annexed into just about any city, advocates say. In South Carolina, cities own most water systems, and they charge considerably more to people who aren’t city residents.

Benjamin and the two other citywide council members – Tameika Isaac Devine and Howard Duvall – have their own ideas about what areas of town should be targeted first. Generally, however, they support expanding into three major road corridors: Shop and Bluff roads to the south; Main Street/Wilson Boulevard/Killian Road to the north and the Garners Ferry Road area to the east.

But City Council has yet to have a detailed annexation discussion, much less reach a vote on target areas. City manager Teresa Wilson said a work session is likely in February where the city’s planning and development staff will help guide council.

Though a public consensus on council has yet to form, some members are impatient to forge ahead.

“I don’t think the city is aggressive enough,” said Duvall, who has extensive experience with annexations because of his 20 years with the Municipal Association of South Carolina, 16 of them as its director. “We just need to get busy.”

As the home of state government, South Carolina’s flagship university and scores of properties owned by local government and other nonprofit organizations, Columbia’s inventory of taxable properties is highly limited.

That means the capital city must grow its core to have more income to meet an increasing demand for public services, such as curbside garbage pickup, increased police patrols and stricter codes enforcement.

As Charleston has expanded its borders, Columbia runs the risk of losing its status as the Palmetto State’s most populous city.

“For us on council,” Devine said, “we need to look at (the fact that) when we don’t make annexation a priority, we run the risk of not having the political influence statewide.”

The stresses of annexation

The three citywide representatives are aware that annexation can set off tensions between well-to-do and low-income property owners, which often has racial undercurrents.

City dwellers and country folk live lifestyles that can conflict, too.

Such divisions have undone some previous annexation drives, Devine said.

Owners of properties that have low- to moderate-taxable value will be made part of an enlarged Columbia, Benjamin said. They, too, need and deserve city services.

“There will be some annexations that have little to do with the tax base,” the mayor said. Devine and Duvall agree that maintaining a racial balance in annexation decisions will be key and a big part of the new coordinator’s job.

South Carolina’s annexation laws date to the 1895 state constitution. And the laws, because they have not been updated since 1962, make annexation difficult, said Scott Slatton, field director of the state’s Municipal Association. “They are among the most restrictive in the country,” he said.

Under state law, property may be annexed in a few ways. A voluntary annexation is when property owners want to become part of a municipality. If 75 percent of property owners in an area choose annexation, their choice can be blocked only if owner(s) representing 25 percent of the area’s assessed value object.

Richland County Rep. Joe McEachern, a former member of county council, recalls the scars of annexation fights in the area off Wilson Boulevard that includes Keenan High School.

In the 1990s, the city annexed large swaths of state government property as well as the site of Midlands Technical College’s enterprise campus. There was talk about bringing Meadowlake subdivision and the new high school inside of city limits. Those plans were withdrawn or blocked, officials said.

“It was pretty much a hostile takeover,” McEachern said of the fights. “We kind of fought to have some buffers (land that was not annexed). We had some success with that.”

Still, it’s been about a decade since that annexation push. “I’m kind of interested in what people will think now that a few years have passed,” he said.

Gregg Hinson owns East Columbia Car Care, along Garners Ferry Road where it transitions from suburban to rural surroundings, has no doubt about his feelings.

“I say keep ’em outta here,” Hinson said of city government and its regulations. “I got an AR-15 (rifle). I like to go out there and let it loose. The nearest house is about three-quarters of a mile away. That’s why we picked to live in the country.”

Bobby Williams, chief executive officer of the 15-restaurant Lizard’s Thicket chain, is leaning against having any more of his stores, including one on Garners Ferry, inside Columbia’s limits. One of the eight restaurants in Richland County is within the city – the Elmwood Avenue site, which the company is trying to remodel.

“We can’t do what we want with our own (Elmwood Avenue) property,” Williams said of a protracted exchange with city officials, who, the businessman said, want the restaurant’s footprint changed.

Lizard’s Thicket’s comptroller told the CEO that savings from lower water and sewer bills would not offset higher taxes, Williams said. “Plus we feel better with Richland County (sheriff’s department) protection. So I don’t think I want to be annexed into the city. I don’t see any advantage.”

Filling doughnut holes

In the past six years, Columbia has annexed about 1,450 acres, according to city records provided to The State newspaper. The capital city now covers some 88,000 acres, planning and development director Krista Hampton estimates.

The vast majority of the 158 annexations since 2011 have been plots of two acres or smaller. Most are small parcels annexed at the request of homeowners or businesses.

The annexations largely have shrunk some of the scores of doughnut holes that dot Columbia.

Doughnut holes – unincorporated lands that are surrounded by cities or towns – create confusion for residents who often don’t know whether they live in Columbia and which government services are available to them. “People feel like if their (mailing) address is Columbia, they think they live in the city,” Devine said.

The city since 2009 also has been expanding in what are called “primary” areas, said Hampton and planning administrator John Fellows. Primary areas are adjacent to the city and already have water and sewer service.

Now, the city plans to trumpet not only lower utility rates but the full range of city services plus greater political representation. Residents who are annexed would keep their County Council representative and gain four voices on City Council: three citywide and one district representative.

Expanding to the interstates

The new annexation coordinator is Andrew Livengood, formerly the city’s deputy zoning administrator and a 10-year veteran of Columbia’s planning department.

Livengood, hired for the job in mid-November, will focus solely on annexations, Hampton said.

“We haven’t had the staff to be able to do that,” she said.

Hampton’s department is waiting on council to decide where Livengood should focus his attention first.

Interviews with the three citywide council members indicate a consensus that, at a minimum, Columbia’s boundaries should reach to the three interstate highways that surround the capital city.

“That would be a natural boundary for the city to take into its sphere of influence,” Duvall said. Further, he said, “All gateways should be part of the city,” a reference to targeting road corridors such as North Main Street/Wilson Boulevard, Shop Road and Garners Ferry Road.

Duvall particularly wants the city to take in the land from Shop Road west across Bluff Road, to the Congaree River. That would include the unincorporated parts of the Olympia neighborhood, the largely African-American Arthurtown community and businesses on Shop and Bluff.

“We need a more strategic approach of where we want to put our utilities and not just follow the developers,” Duvall said.

Staff writer Sarah Ellis contributed.

RECENT LARGE ANNEXATIONS

The 1,450 acres annexed since 2011 represent geographic scatter shots across Columbia, with the largest chunks coming in the three key areas expected to be targeted next year.

▪ The single largest parcel is the 313 acres off Bluff Road that the University of South Carolina bought and asked to be annexed as the site of a practice facility for golf teams and a future location for student intramural sports. Later, the university plans walking and jogging trails surrounding 50 acres of wetlands.

That large annexation happened in mid-April because USC needed water and sewer lines to service students who would use the facilities, said Russ Meekins, director of the university’s development foundation.

▪ Another large parcel is 103 1/2 acres that is home to the Sysco food distribution plant off Garners Ferry Road on the east side of the city. It became part of Columbia in December 2013.

▪ Subdivisions, mostly the Woodcreek Farms development in Northeast Columbia, have driven the other large chunks of annexed properties.

COLUMBIA VS. CHARLESTON

Columbia long has been the most populous city in South Carolina. Is that about to change?

Columbia population

2010 Census: 129,272

2015 estimate: 133,803

Charleston population

2010 Census: 120,083

2015 estimate: 132,609

Voices from south Columbia

RESIDENT: Joining the city “would be a good thing for Olympia,” said Joby Castine, who has lived in the community for more than six decades. Sewer service, lower water rates, better codes enforcement and a more convenient police presence are all positives that would offset the downside of paying higher property taxes, he said. “In the end, I think there’s a lot more positive things that come along with being in the city than not.”

BUSINESS OWNER: There are a lot of unknowns that make it difficult for Cason Cook, division manager of Chatham Steel on Shop Road, to say whether becoming part of the city would be a good move for his business. “I’d have to find out what the pros and cons are,” Cook said.

Voices from north Columbia

RESIDENTS: “If my water bill is going down and my taxes are going up, I’m not going to do it,” said Josh Kerr, a plumber who has lived near Blythewood for 40 years. But Kerr said he likes the idea of having four representatives on City Council in addition to the one representative on Richland County Council.

“One thing they’ve got to figure is little old ladies on fixed incomes,” said Margo Dimmery, who is 65 and has lived in the Blythewood area 43 years.

BUSINESS OWNER: “My personal opinion is that usually when governments are trying to take something, it’s not a good thing,” said Danny Kiser, who has owned Tractor Mart on Wilson Boulevard for 20 years.

Voices from east Columbia

RESIDENT: “Us country people like our privacy. We like to be able to go out in our yards and shoot our guns,” said Gregg Hinson, who owns a 50-acre farm in Lower Richland. And, “I’m a honey bee farmer. I got bee hives all over my yard. You can’t do that in the city.”

BUSINESS OWNER: “They say they want to be easy to do business with,” said Lizard’s Thicket CEO Bobby Williams, who is locked in a dispute with Columbia about remodeling his only in-town restaurant. “It’s just the opposite.”

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