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Compromise, or get burned

Posted: Wednesday, May 13, 2009

After so many years of swallowing the camels of big-box development in Evans, why are Columbia County commissioners suddenly straining at gnats by focusing a magnifying glass on the plans for the Marshall Square development?

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Actually, it doesn't seem like gnats are the metaphorical insect, but ants. Commissioners with their magnifying glass are acting like a sadistic 8-year-old hovering over an anthill. While painless for them, their interest is painful for the investors whose plans are being burned. And it could be painful for taxpayers.

Much of this drawn-out drama over the details of a single development comes down to county commissioners continuing their newfound anti-apartment stance. Fine by me; I'd be OK with never building another apartment complex in the county.

Backing them up is the sheriff, who says apartments are hotbeds for crime. Some school officials don't like apartments because of the burden on schools.

These complaints are best expressed in opposing new rezonings for apartments. If a piece of land already has the correct zoning - as does Marshall Square - then government opposition becomes a property rights issue: You have the right to do what's legal with your land, and adding further restrictions to its use is the same thing as the government taking away the value of your property.

There are two apartment complexes under construction not far from Marshall Square. They already have the proper zoning and are being built right now.

Commissioners last week, though, decided to make Marshall Square an example of a retroactive crackdown.

The original 2004 paperwork approved for Marshall Square's Planned Unit Development zoning includes this reference: "All residential density will be limited to 34 units per acre and will meet the market demands for high quality apartments and condominium ownership."

Mere pesky details. Before commissioners voted, County Attorney Doug Batchelor told them to ignore all that past paperwork because it could be confusing. Seriously.

Commissioners then voted to apply the 14-units-per-acre restriction of Apartment Residential zoning to the PUD-zoned Marshall Square.

That means the Marshall Square developers can't build as many apartments as commissioners had earlier told them they could build. Commissioners arbitrarily reduced the value of private property. That's where a lawsuit would begin, and likely end with taxpayers picking up the tab.

Here's a solution. Apartment density is a function of the number of acres on which an apartment complex is drawn. The complex is designated for about 13.5 acres of the 47-acre Marshall Square site. With the county's newly imposed restriction, and means just 189 apartments can be built - not enough to make the plans economically viable, the developers contend.

But if the developers on paper could designate more acres for apartments - without adding any more buildings to their current plans - they could build enough units on the site to make the plans work.

That's likely one of the areas of negotiation between commissioners and developers this week. If commissioners are dead-set on sticking to AR zoning density, they might want to rescue taxpayers from paying for an almost-certain lawsuit by allowing more land on the site to be used for apartments.

Other than the threat of a lawsuit, a big bargaining chip from the developers is their offer to pay for building the town square the county wants and extending Ronald Reagan Drive at their expense.

Clearly there's something for both sides to give, and commissioners don't even have to put down their new-found magnifying glass when it comes to reviewing the details of developers' plans.

If the private owners of Marshall Square take the county to court, taxpayers footing the bill will get burned - though I'm sure we just look like ants from way up there in the government complex.

Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal@newstimesonline.com.



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