Verizon project protested

Caught off guard by a Verizon call center under construction on Spears Creek Church Road, about 300 people from the Woodcreek Farms community met Tuesday night to discuss the formation of a neighborhood association.

They also are considering putting up a gate to guard entry into the affluent neighborhood that is on Columbia's northeast boundary.

During the 1 1/2-hour meeting, residents skewered a developer who brought the Verizon project to the neighborhood. And they turned a cold shoulder toward the telecommunications company with a majority in attendance saying they would prefer the company locate its call center somewhere else.

Neighbors are questioning how the call center will affect traffic, public safety and property values.

Verizon announced plans in December to build a $40 million, 150,000-square-foot call center on 30 acres adjacent to Woodcreek Farms, where home values can push close to $1 million. Verizon is expected to employ 1,500 people when it opens the new building late this year. Those jobs are valuable to Richland County, where the unemployment rate is 10 percent.

Verizon has been in Columbia for 10 years. Its current call center operates out of the struggling Midtown at Forest Acres shopping mall. It is the company's largest call center.

The company said it wanted to remain in Richland County and picked the Spears Creek Church Road location after reviewing several other sites.

However, residents of Woodcreek Farms said they did not know the development was coming until November. That is when a few neighbors who live along Woodcreek Ridge Road were invited to a meeting to receive information about a planned development.

Todd and Ginger Walter, who can see the Verizon construction site from the back windows of their home, said they were shocked to see that Woodcreek Ridge Road was one of three entry points to the call center.

They are negotiating with Verizon to change that, and they are getting help from politicians who represent the area on Richland County Council, Columbia City Council and in the S.C. Senate.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, announced that Verizon had agreed to build a gate at the back exit and restrict traffic from entering Woodcreek Ridge Road after 6 p.m. The company also has promised to pay half the cost of building a sidewalk along the street for neighbors who use it for jogging and cycling, Lourie said.

Anna Almeida, Richland County deputy planning director, said developers of the Verizon site have submitted a letter that details the vegetation and height of berms to separate the properties.

However, the Walters said they want the road closed to Verizon's employees.

"We're not against Verizon," Ginger Walter said. "We can all live together. Just close the road and give us separate boundaries."

Karen Shulz, a Verizon spokeswoman, said the company does not want to abandon plans to use the road because of traffic safety.

While Verizon offered those concessions, most people at the meeting were not welcoming the new neighbor. A majority raised their hands when Todd Walter asked who would like to see the project come to halt.

Kay Hightower was one of those who held up her hand.

While the Verizon call center is not visible from Hightower's home in the Woodcreek Farms community, she said the project simply does not fit the character of the development.

"We're all about creating jobs, but not in a luxury development," she said. "You pay a lot of money for your home and you want to protect its value. They blind-sided us. It's not what we were promised. It's not what we paid for."The 30 acres where Verizon is locating was zoned for commercial development, which includes office space such as the call center. However, Woodcreek Farms residents said they were told it was reserved for boutique shops and an upscale grocery store, Ginger Walter said.

They believe the developers, who own the housing development as well as the commercial property on its borders, deceived them.

Throughout the meeting, residents complained about the secrecy behind the deal. For months, the Verizon development was known as "Project Pearl" and state and county officials approved tax incentives for the company.

County Councilwoman Val Hutchinson said she voted for the deal but never knew what the project entailed. That is a common practice in economic development deals, she said.

Residents also expressed concern about traffic around Pontiac Elementary School, which across the street from the Verizon site.

Richland 2 superintendent Stephen Hefner said the district was trying to figure out the impact on school safety and promised it would be a priority.

"Like you, we were surprised we were getting a new neighbor," Hefner said. "We will be in a difficult position to argue against economic development and something that brings jobs to our community."

Several residents acknowledged there is a slim chance of stopping Verizon. But they hope they can organize to prevent further surprises. They also may hire an attorney to fight the project.

For example, another 150 acres along Spears Creek Church Road between the Verizon development and Interstate 20 could become a commercial development, said Larry McDaniel, a Woodcreek Farms resident who organized the meeting.

That's why residents want to form a neighborhood association.

Woodcreek Farms residents pay dues to a homeowners association to fund community projects such as landscaping. While residents serve as delegates on the association, the developer controls that association and its money, McDaniel said.

A neighborhood association would not be able to make official decisions about the property, but it would give residents a unified voice, he said.

The association could get behind ideas such as asking Columbia City Council for permission to gate entrances into Woodcreek Farms. If the community was gated, then the city would no longer be responsible for street maintenance. City Council would have to approve that change.

After the meeting, several people gathered to volunteer to lead the neighborhood association.

"We won't have an authoritative voice, but we will have a political voice," McDaniel said.