Many Columbia County residents had the same reaction Tuesday when the County Commission rejected an apartment rezoning:
"Who are you people, and what have you done with our commissioners?"
The proposal would have rezoned 24 residential acres on Wheeler Road to allow a 250-unit apartment complex. To call its rejection a surprise is like calling D-Day an afternoon at a beach.
What's more, the commonsense rationale commissioners used to turn down the request from Hathaway Development Co. is remarkably refreshing: With information from Columbia County Planning and Development Director Jeff Browning, commissioners simply noted that there already is enough local land zoned for apartments.
This is quite a switch for commissioners. They've rarely seen a high-density development they wouldn't approve, in spite of the massive numbers of such projects.
Commissioners sometimes take unfair criticism for the pace of road- and school-clogging development. In a free society, there are limits to how much local governments can impede the use of private property.
One of the appropriate avenues of control is zoning. If a property already has the proper zoning for a project, commissioners can't do much to stop a private owner from using it. A change in zoning is perfectly reasonable when no land is available for a particular use, or when trends in private property development have leapfrogged even the best-intended plans.
However, in this case, Browning demonstrates that there already are seven vacant sites in Columbia County zoned to allow nearly 1,900 apartments. Armed with that information, and facing strong opposition from Sheriff Clay Whittle, School Board Chairman Regina Buccafusco, a room full of the project's neighbors and parents from Martinez Elementary School, commissioners wisely and unanimously rejected the apartment rezoning.
If there truly is a market for more apartments in Columbia County, then private developers likely will take immediate action to build on some of the apartment sites already available. Based on recent construction trends, Browning says enough slots are available to supply the demand for up to 10 years.
Until then, the commissioners - yes, that was really them - deserve praise for making the right vote at the right time.
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