The owner of one of Columbia’s most visible reminders of the destruction of last fall’s floods is stuck in limbo, waiting on government officials whose decisions will control what he can do with his nearly $1 million investment.
Owen Chastain, the primary owner of the TitleMax building that has become an eyesore on Devine Street, said the building probably won’t be torn down or repaired for months.
Richland County officials have said that under current floodplain laws, neither Chastain nor a new owner could rebuild because the property, on the banks of Gills Creek, is in a floodway.
But preliminary flood maps that likely will take effect later this year would open the door to rebuilding because the land would no longer be in a heavily restricted floodway, according to Andrea Bolling, the county’s floodplain coordinator.
So Chastain, a Port St. Lucie, Fla., resident, is left with a gamble. If he tears down the building and the county decides to ban future development, “then a very, very valuable piece of property is worthless,” he said. “And that’s not fair, and that’s not equitable. I’m kind of spinning around in circles right now.”
Richland County spokeswoman Beverly Harris said county officials are working with Chastain on a solution. But she would not discuss details.
“While the Richland County ordinance has specific requirements for development and redevelopment in the floodway, the county is looking into various alternatives to help property owners – both commercial and residential – affected by the flood,” Harris said.
Though Chastain’s property is surrounded by the city of Columbia, it is in an unincorporated parcel of land known as a doughnut hole.
Three months after the historic October flooding, the vacant brick building that held a TitleMax and Liberty Tax on a high-traffic stretch of Devine Street remains almost as it was when floodwater tore through it.
Much of the ceiling of Chastain’s building has collapsed. Insulation and wiring hang from parts of the ceiling that remain standing. Rubble is everywhere. The floor and parking lot on the side closest to the creek have caved in.
Chastain’s is not the only unused building in the hard-hit area. Across Devine Street, a Subway and Title Loans remain boarded. Their owners are working with city officials because those parcels are within Columbia’s city limits.
On the uphill side of Gills Creek, an adult sex shop and a sandwich shop have reopened.
Though Chastain said the county has given him the option, he said he has neither the interest nor the money to repair the building, which was at the site before restrictions on construction.
He discovered the damage to his investment while on a trip in early October. Chastain said he stopped at a hotel and watched television images of the building as it buckled. He said he had flood insurance and received a settlement, though Chastain would not say how much.
“The sheer force of water is truly amazing,” Chastain said last week during one of three trips here to find a solution. He said he’s been in talks with the county since the days immediately after the flood.
TitleMax and Liberty Tax have moved out of the building that dates to 1956, apparently before the land was designated as being in a floodway. Chastain said he wants to tear down the building, which county tax records show he bought for $720,000 in 2008. He wants to sell it to a developer.
The distinction between a floodway and a floodplain is key to what can be done with the property.
Floodways include land closest to rivers or other waterways. They have tighter development restrictions than floodplains, which are farther away from waterways.
For example, the county’s floodplain law allows construction in floodways of parking or loading areas, agricultural or horticultural uses, fishing or swimming areas and other open-air uses. But buildings are not permitted, with very few exceptions.
Chastain said he has decided to postpone his next move until new flood maps go into effect later this year.
County spokeswoman Harris said the maps, drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are going through an appeals process. Once all the appeals are addressed, there is a six-month “compliance period” before the maps take effect, she said.
“It’s not a matter of what I want to do,” Chastain said. “I have no choice but to simply wait and hope that the maps will allow the restrictions to be eased.”
He said he is mulling other options, including selling the property to the county for green space.
Chastain said he has agreed to pay contractors to clean up the debris and put up fencing around the property. “And then,” Chastain said, “we’re going to sit for months.”