The Evans town center ordinances have been in place for the better part of two years now. What do we have to show for it?
Thats just one of the questions that should be asked as Columbia County commissioners review challenges to the town center concept. These challenges, while generally an attempt to dismantle or undercut the development controls in place in the downtown Evans area, can nonetheless be constructive - if commissioners take a broad enough view.
The two tangible challenges are on two fronts: one legal, the other within the countys system itself. The legal challenge is raised by Gail Stebbins, an attorney and property owner whose request for rezoning at the edge of the town center was rejected.
Stebbins wanted to put storage warehouses in the Belair Road area near Cox Road. The countys position is this area is inappropriate for heavier commercial and industrial zoning, which is the type zoning in which storage businesses are allowed, says Jeff Browning, the director of planning and development for Columbia County.
Stebbins failed to win rezoning through regular channels, and is exploring a back door: Shes asserted that the town center ordinances themselves are invalid because of a technical flaw in one of the legal notices announcing hearings on the town center. While the county maintains the rezoning shouldnt occur regardless of the town center rules, the entire law could still be invalidated by the legal fight.
Fortunately, the county likely has its bases covered, and the notices omission will be considered a harmless error: Every property owner in the town center was sent a notice in the mail about the process, so no one can credibly claim the ordinance was enacted without publicity. It helps, too, that the plan received nearly three years of news coverage before adoption.
While that challenge is in the courts, it is county commissioners who must consider another attack on the town center. This one involves a request to relax the rules to allow a car lot inside the town center.
The ordinances for the area prohibit outdoor displays from new businesses. That means Fairway Ford, there before the rules were enacted, can continue to sell cars, but no new auto dealership can open in the town center - at least, not one with cars displayed for sale outdoors.
The rule doesnt just apply to car lots. Nearby Wal-Mart has been fighting since it opened to get permission to display lawn equipment and other items on its sidewalks.
Some people believe, "We need to let up on outdoor displays and let Wal-Mart stack bags of fertilizer outside, says commissioner-elect Steve Brown, a member of the countys Planning Commission and one of the strongest supporters of the town center concept. But thats why we have the town center rules in the first place.
These things need to be flexible, Brown adds. These things always need to be subject to change. But will the change make it better?
What has the town center done? Thats clear: Coupled with a concentration of government construction projects in the area, the town centers rules have created a greater sense of identity and value in downtown Evans. Thats best demonstrated by skyrocketing property values in the area. And the concept is endorsed every time a developer builds just outside the town center to share its appeal while escaping its restrictions.
In just over a week, county commissioners will consider the Planning Commissions rejection of the car-lot rezoning. And the Stebbins case is pending in court.
Its not a bad idea to have an overall review of the town center plan. After two years of success, such a study could be constructive. But commissioners should be careful lest they dismantle a good idea one loophole at a time.
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