The Aiken City Planning Commission held a work session Monday night to discuss the Open Space Element and listen to concerns of residents about the document that some say is vague and confusing.
At one point, someone compared it to the wooden horse that the Greeks used to infiltrate Troy in 12th century B.C.
“This is like the Trojan Horse,” said resident James Brinkley.
The document’s intended purpose is to offer the city guidance on how to preserve open space. This element has drawn the attention of several local landowners and developers who are pretty uncomfortable by some of the things this document suggests.
A combined $2.5 million was approved by voters in 2004 and 2010 through the Local Option Sales Tax for parks and acquisition of land for open space or greenways. In 2008, City Council asked the Planning to prepare an open space element for the comprehensive plan. The draft was recommended to City Council in January of this year, but it has been turned back to the Commission several times for further review and amendments.
A committee is recommended in this document “to help facilitate natural land protection” by recommending property that the city could purchase or acquire conservation easements through negotiation with landowners. The committee would report to the Planning Commission, which, in turn, would make a recommendation to Council.
Commission Chair Wilkins Byrd emphasized that the plan was voluntary and the city would respect private property rights. He said there was no intention of forcing any property owner into an agreement with the City.
Resident Philip Merry spoke at the meeting and said his concern was not with the city acquiring land but how the city would use it. He then pointed out a line in the open space document under the purpose section that reads “establish the framework for development.”
Merry went on to say that the document establishes new standards, development regulations and recommendations for these undeveloped plots of land. He cited the mention of exactions or impact fees in the potential implementation methods. Merry said these new fees, exactions and regulations could hurt future development.
Byrd said that that is all merely a recommendation to Council, which will decide how to implement the plan.
Mark Nix, the executive director of Home Builders Association of South Carolina, said much of what this document suggests is already in force through the city’s zoning ordinance. He said the element establishes another level of bureaucracy by “regulating what’s already regulated.”
He added that the landowners should be trusted a bit more. One line in the document’s introduction reads that much of the open spaces “are privately held and are vulnerable to development as demand for residential and commercial land increases.”
“The people who love their land are the best protectors of the land,” Nix said. “They buy the land, and they take care of it.”
The Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jameson said the document, currently around 40 pages long, needs to be clearer, more concise and maybe even completely rewritten since it underwent so many revisions.
Jameson added that the document needs to clarify that this committee formed will not be involved in any decisions regarding actual development, but its sole duty would be to identify unique pieces of land for the city to possibly purchase for preservation.
Jameson added that he’s lived in other cities that have had similar plans established, and it led to unintended consequences.
No action was taken tonight because this was a work session. Byrd said commissioners will review and consider comments made that night.
The Open Space Element will be discussed at the next Planning Commission work session, which is held before its regularly scheduled meeting. The work session will take place Oct. 9 at 5 p.m. in room 204 on the second floor of the Municipal Building located at 214 Park Ave. S.W.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the time of the work session. The work session will be held at 5 p.m. The Aiken Standard regrets the error