County's top planner resignation follows ‘ready to rumble’ e-mail

Richland County's top planner has resigned after an e-mail from him surfaced suggesting environmentalists should "get ready to rumble" with developers over new water pollution rules.

After the e-mail from planner Joe Kocy was forwarded to him, Earl McLeod, head of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Columbia, said he shared it with Kocy's boss, county Administrator Milton Pope.

Home builder Stewart Mungo said he, too, complained to Pope about the e-mail, from Kocy to "Green Allies."

"Anybody that has that kind of agenda, you could not ever deal with them and think you were being treated fairly," Mungo said.

But some say Kocy's departure from the planning department - which works with developers on residential and commercial construction - hints at the home builders' influence on the county.

Others hope it doesn't signal a retreat from taking new approaches to growth and development, something some County Council members said they wanted when Kocy was hired two years ago from Broward County, Fla.

Efforts to reach Kocy were unsuccessful.

Pope would not comment beyond noting Kocy's resignation was effective Nov. 29.

Kocy's e-mail, dated a year ago, surfaced in September.

It originally was sent under Kocy's county e-mail account to 10 individuals under the subject line, "Who is advocating for nature?"

Kocy wrote the Homebuilders Association "is harping they were not consulted" on proposed storm water regulations and were meeting with Pope and some County Council members to weaken the measure.

Those proposed regulations - addressing ways to keep trash, silt and other pollution out of lakes, creeks and rivers - would impact home builders.

"Has any environmental organization requested an audience with Mr. Pope or a Council Member supporting the proposed regulation ...?" the e-mail asks.

It goes on to say, "The HBA is generating plenty of noise and getting plenty of attention. The proposed regulation is dying a death of 1000 edits.

"If the environmental advocates don't get active, I'll be inviting you to Mother Nature's wake.

"Let's get ready to rumble!!!"

The e-mail, Mungo said, was leaked to members of the real estate community, who were outraged and shared it freely.

McLeod said: "Mr. Kocy proved himself to be not impartial nor balanced in his role as planning director."

Ultimately, developing the county's storm water regulations became the job of residents and staff invited to an eight-month-long development round table that included conservationists picked by the Richland County Conservation Commission and developers picked by the Homebuilders Association.

Updated regulations are required by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which levied an $830,549 fine against the county in May 2006 because of its noncompliance with federal laws on water quality.

Kocy developed the round table process, got funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and hired experts to facilitate the discussion among the group of about 50 people.

The round table reached agreement on concepts it is drafting into new ordinances, which County Council will consider in January.

The package addresses not only storm water pollution but also new development guidelines on such things as green space, sidewalks and trees - quality-of-life issues the county was criticized for not attending to before growth booms in the northeast and northwest resulted in traffic congestion and summertime water shortages.

Leaving undisturbed buffers along lakes, creeks and rivers has proven to be an especially divisive issue.

Some worry Kocy's departure could undermine the process of bringing different interests to the table.

"For one, I would hope Joe's departure does not represent backsliding on the part of the county in terms of commitment to sound land-use planning," said Bob Guild of the Sierra Club, a conservation group.

Ryan Nevius, with Sustainable Midlands, a collective of similar groups, said: "Joe Kocy took the county where it needed to go during a tough time, and we owe him a debt."

Other contentious issues during Kocy's tenure included how to regulate digital billboards and temporary signs posted along major streets.

But Richland County Councilman Bill Malinowski said Kocy undermined his own effectiveness by appearing biased.

The Homebuilders Association did not pressure the county to oust Kocy, Malinowski said. The association's McLeod agreed, saying he never suggested Kocy needed to go.

John Grego, with Friends of Congaree Swamp, said Kocy occasionally sent e-mails "encouraging conservationists to stay involved in the process."

That's no different from developers being invited to give their opinions on new regulations affecting them, Grego said.

Last year, for example, Grego said, county staff "showed more deference to developers than environmentalists" when updating standards on allowing fill dirt in flood plains.

"A final compromise ... was worked out solely between county staff and developers," Grego wrote in an e-mail.

People in the conservation community were not allowed to weigh in until later, Grego said.

"Conservationists were consulted after staff had met with developers, and though I had some serious concerns with the proposed wording for the amendment, none of our suggestions were incorporated in the final document."

If that is so, it was a bad way for the county to do business, Councilman Malinowski said. Both sides should be part of the process.

Chris Anderson, the immediate-past chairman of the Richland County Planning Commission, would not comment on Kocy's departure.

But commissioner Heather Cairns said a consistent theme under Kocy's leadership was using solutions found in other communities to make development laws more flexible - not mandatory - with options.

Kocy, Cairns said, wanted to steer the county away from "business as usual."

Pope has named Sparty Hammett, assistant county administrator, as interim planning director while the county starts the search for Kocy's replacement.

The e-mail aside, Malinowski agreed Kocy was helping move the county in the right direction.

"I didn't see him as going too far one way or the other," Malinowski added. "I saw him as trying to bring about a county plan that was actually reflective of what the council was asking for."