By Al Dozier
In a contentious meeting marked by fiery exchanges and angry reactions that at times prompted police intervention, the Irmo Town Council backed off an ordinance change some hoped would block two proposed low-rent housing projects in the center of town.
The move came as proponents of the projects called on the council to recognize the need for affordable housing.
“To deny that right is immoral and inhumane,” said Larry Haltiwanger, a former Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board member.
“Take care of those who do not have a voice,” said the Rev. Steven Edwards, pastor of St. Paul AME Church in Irmo.
Some residents who now live in a recently completed affordable housing complex, Cinnaberry Pointe, voiced support for their new home and advised the council there were no problems associated with their complex.
The ordinance change, which would have limited the number of apartment units from16 per acre to 7 per acre, failed to win the council’s approval. The vote came after the council met with legal counsel representing the town’s insurance provider. Council members expressed concerns if they changed the ordinance, the town could face lawsuits from the developer, and possibly from HUD.
Councilwoman Kathy Condom expressed disappointment in having to cast a vote against the ordinance change.
“Sometimes your vote is not what you want to do, but you have to do it,” she said.
Councilman Mark Pouliot blamed Walker for politicizing the issue with his Facebook posts.
But the prospect of large apartment buildings with low-income renters in the heart of Irmo has brought a huge outcry from citizens who say the town doesn’t have the infrastructure to support more apartments. They complain traffic will get worse, schools will be overcrowded and community safety is at risk.
Developers have applied to the S.C. Tax Credit Program to build two apartment complexes: a 54-unit complex, known as Parkside at Columbiana, on 8.75 acres in the College Street area behind First Citizens Bank; and a 48-unit development on a 3.9 acre tract on Lake Murray Boulevard near the Hillcreek Subdivision, identified as Cooper Trace.
They would be built by private market developers. In exchange for tax credit, the developer agrees to offer the units to tenants meeting income requirements.
The State Housing Authority is the government agency that will give final approval to the projects, but it’s unclear if that will happen. Several developers are seeking the tax credit, but the agency will only approve a few.
Officials with the housing authority say lawsuits are often filed against local governments that seek to change zoning to stop the developments.
Asked by the New Irmo News if he would file a lawsuit if the town were to change the ordinance, developer Kevin Connelly declined comment.
Irmo resident Erick Sickinger said during the public comment session he is not against affordable housing, but he is against having a big building going up a small area.
Sickiner said Irmo should not be caught up in a surprise development, but should look to the future with its zoning regulations.
“It’s a question of strategy,” he said.
Resident Barbara Walden said in the future the town should revisit the ordinance on General Commercial, which permits the two proposed housing projects, and remove all residential allowances, since it’s designed to regulate commercial businesses.
During the lengthy meeting there were some personal exchanges and crowd reactions that prompted police officers to approach some members of the audience and warn them to stay quiet.
Sickinger said he was approached outside of the town hall by somebody “who got right in my face.” He was afraid the unidentified man was getting ready to attack him, but a police officer intervened.
In other action at Tuesday’s meeting, the council gave second reading approval to a 2019-2020 Operating and Capital Budget totaling $6,392,267.
The council also approved a zoning change from Fringe Agricultural to General Residential for a .99 acre tract just off Dreher Shoals Road.