Historic District homeowners win property zoning battle
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
Homeowners in Darlington’s St. John’s Historic District last week won their fight to keep property zoning in their area unchanged and to protect their neighborhood from what residents feared might be a future of “neon lights” and “AutoZones.” Meeting Sept. 7, Darlington City Council voted 4-2 to kill a plan that would rezone – from residential to commercial – a large section of land behind the Darlington County Culture and Realism Complex off Pearl Street. The land runs along Orange and Sycamore streets, sites of historic homes near St. John’s Elementary School. Some of the CRC property is zoned commercial, but most is residential, and residents in the Historic District had already written a letter to the city, protesting what the change might do to their quality of life and property values. Last month, council gave initial approval to the zoning change. At last week’s council meeting, homeowners protested the plan during a public hearing on the change and during individual addresses to council, each limited to five minutes and monitored by a newly installed digital clock that counts down from five minutes to zero. The basic debate broke down like this: CRC representatives argued that they wanted all the property to be under one consistent zoning – commercial – rather than split between commercial and residential as organizers “reassemble” CRC’s board and relaunch it as a community agency. They said that they had no plans to make changes on the property or bring in new development, and that CRC had always and would always respect Darlington’s values. Council, homeowners and CRC representatives dove into the history of the property, but no one seemed certain how the tract of land went from being five smaller tracts into one large piece of property with split zoning. The front of the tract, where the CRC building faces Pearl Street, is commercial, while most of it is residential. Some of the CRC building itself is split between two zoning categories. Homeowners in the area countered that CRC’s intentions might be good, but that there was no way to know who might own the property in years to come and what any future owners’ intentions might be. They said they could not risk harm to their historic neighborhood and damage to property values. One homeowner, William Jackson, told council: “I’m sure they’ve got great intentions not to do anything to hurt the city of Darlington. … If the property changes hands, and they want to put up an AutoZone there, and it’s zoned general commercial, there’s nothing that can be done. And now we’ve got neon lights and who knows what stuck right in the middle of Orange Street. It’s scary for us.” Most of City Council accepted the homeowners’ argument. “There’s no plan” for what might be done with the CRC property in the future, Mayor Curtis Boyd said. Councilman Bryant Gardner said, “I don’t see how … essentially in the middle of our Historic District, we go to general commercial (zoning). … We need to maintain our Historic Districts. They’re there for a reason.” Council member Sheila Baccus disagreed, and cited an earlier conflict over putting a basketball court at a park honoring slain police officer Terrence Carraway. “The city had no problem – the council had no problem – when (the issue was) on the corner of Avenue D … and those citizens didn’t want a part of that park, and the basketball court. … Two or three hundred (residents’ petition signatures) said they didn’t want a basketball court. But this council had no problem ignoring those citizens and making that property general commercial. But I guess it was because of the side of town it was on, and who brought it to council.” Gardner told Baccus he didn’t think the issues were comparable because a specific change for a specific reason was being sought for the Carraway park. “Just a general commercial blanket (zoning) in the middle of an Historic District does not set a good precedent for preserving our homes,” Gardner said. Voting to kill the plan and leave the area’s zoning unchanged were Mayor Boyd, Gardner, Howard Nettles and John Segars. Council member John Milling, who was taking part in the meeting by phone because of a recent illness, abstained. He said he had done legal work for one of the parties. Voting in favor of the zoning-change plan were Baccus and Elaine Reed.