Feud over Lexington County growth, roads tears at local leaders, with no fix for months

Five months.

That’s about how long it’s been since Lexington County told the cities and townswithin its borders that it was ending a 45-year-old agreement to maintain roads, kicking off a contentious battle over who decides zoning standards and who controls roads funding in one of South Carolina’s most rapidly growing areas.

The ongoing drama boils down to a power struggle over deciding how to manage Lexington County’s growth and who decides what that looks like moving forward.

This week, the leaders of local governments will finally sit down to talk about how to move forward. But what that way forward might be isn’t immediately clear. And recent tensions suggest it may not be a happy gathering.

Lexington County Council Chair Beth Carrigg said she isn’t sure why it’s taken so long to get together and try to find common ground.

“I don’t know why we haven’t received any proposed agreements that we can at least look at and discuss,” she said. “We’ve sent one out. They’ve said, ‘No.’ We said, ‘Send us something.’ And we haven’t received anything.”

Most of the county’s 14 municipalities take issue with the county’s new proposal for road maintenance, offered about two months after the county rescinded the original agreement in December, with only the small town of Gaston having signed on. The proposed agreement adds a stipulation that new residential development on lands annexed into municipalities must adhere to the county’s zoning standards for the county to take on responsibility for maintaining those roads.

The cities and towns insist that only they should dictate the terms by which they grow. And now, they also want seats at the table for deciding how state gas tax funds get doled out for road maintenance throughout the county. At present, the county’s Transportation Committee is made up of only the members of County Council, with no voice from the cities or towns.

The legislative delegation from the county, who decide the makeup of the Transportation Committee, have criticized the way local leaders are behaving over the issues of growth and roads.

At a March delegation meeting called to consider the Transportation Committee’s membership, the legislators were critical of the short notice given to the municipalities that the agreement would be rescinded, which was barely more than the 30 days required. But they weren’t pleased with any of the local government representatives who appeared before them, taking them to task for their inability to work together.

Ultimately, they told the county and municipal officials to work it out among themselves.

“I find a sense of frustration in this matter because of the departure from what has typically defined our county, and that is a cooperative spirit among the various entities,” state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, said.

“Don’t go home and pull out your Facebook account and start writing bad things about each other,” said state Sen. Karina Shealy, R-Lexington, the chair of the delegation. “Don’t start texting and text mean things about each other. Be nice children when you leave. Maybe sit at the door and shake hands and say something nice to each other when you go. And try and get together and work it out.”

Lost confidence and trust

That was four weeks ago. And the temperature between the county and the municipalities hasn’t cooled much, if any, since.

“I have a fundamental lack of confidence and trust in the leadership at our County Council level,” said Tem Miles, the mayor of West Columbia. “And I think that that is a sentiment that’s shared by the vast majority of leaders across our cities in this county. And I’m hopeful that this meeting that is coming up will be the first step towards us trying to salvage some type of workable relationship with them.”

He said it’s up to the county to bring a proposal to the table to try to get the municipalities back on board.

Complicating the issue is a proposed urban overlay district, which would loosen the county’s zoning standards in the more populated areas surrounding West Columbia, Cayce and Springdale.

Several disgruntled citizens appeared at a public hearing about the overlay late last month, imploring County Council not to omit requirements related to essential services such as EMS, fire, law enforcement and schools for this area.

That overlay, which the county Planning Commission will soon decide whether to change before it comes back before council, will set the standards that apply to the county’s proposed maintenance agreement.

For his part, Miles wasn’t concerned about the overlay, as West Columbia provides adequate services to meet whatever requirements are implemented.

Every local official The State spoke with offered vague hopes to find common ground at the upcoming meeting between the municipalities and the county but no specific ideas for compromise. They do have some hard lines about what they will accept.

“The county has encroached on our rights to govern ourselves,” said Lexington Town Councilman Gavin Smith. “We have the ability to govern ourselves, as we see fit, in the unincorporated areas of our community. And I would like to see us work towards common ground and move the ball forward on a new agreement that has terms that both parties can agree to. Ultimately, I do not support at all the town giving up its right to govern itself and to zone areas of our community as we see fit.”

Carrigg was similarly firm that the county must have a say in how new residential developments in annexed territories are set up, as it is responsible for EMS, fire and other services and infrastructure that will feel the burden of these additions. She specifically spotlighted the need to set up new subdivisions such that there isn’t a combination of street parking and narrow roads that makes it difficult for first responders to reach people during an emergency.

“We can only grow Lexington County once, and we want to do it appropriately,” she said.

Carrigg added that she has no concern over how the cities and towns grow within their own borders and that the proposed roads maintenance agreement in no way dictates those terms.

“It has nothing whatsoever to do with how they grow their town commercially,” she said. “And by that, I mean restaurants, bars, nightlife, ball fields, anything that people want to enjoy in their municipalities. And it doesn’t include anything that’s already been taken in residentially over the past 46 years. This is only any new acquired or proposed annexation property for residential development.”

Seeking common ground on roads

As to the Transportation Committee, which Carrigg emphasized makes decisions separate from the projects that tie into the roads maintenance agreement, the county has proposed adding a subcommittee of municipal representatives that would offer advice before decisions are made.

The municipalities are looking for more, having asked for voting members representing them to be added to the committee.

“Municipality residents make up about 25% of county residents,” Smith said. “And I think that it’s important that at least some of the seats on the (committee) are allocated to municipal residents to make sure that those voices are represented.”

Carrigg said she’s open to the idea of adding some voting members representing municipalities to the committee.

“It’s all about getting to the table and discussing it in a professional manner and seeing where we can come to,” she said. “It’s all about hearing from them and trying to listen openly, and they need to listen openly.”

One point on which the municipalities and the county definitely seem to agree is they aren’t sure what will come of this week’s meeting, which is set for Friday, April 19, at the Town of Lexington Municipal Complex.

“I’m not sure where the county’s willing to make any moves,” said Cayce Mayor Elise Partin. “I do know that the Lexington County state delegation, those folks are not real happy with the way that the county is handling things. And so that’s helpful to kind of, you know, have that bigger brother saying, ‘No, y’all need to figure this out.’”