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Stretching a yellow tape measure from his desk, Lancaster County Councilman Larry Honeycutt demonstrated the significance of 20 feet.
With help from county planner Kathy Johnson, the tape measure was pulled from Honeycutt’s seat to a spot near a podium during council’s meeting on Monday, Dec. 9.
The point, Honeycutt said, was to highlight problems he sees with the minimum street width allowed within cluster subdivisions, just one facet of a county-wide cluster subdivision overlay district ordinance up for review by council.
“That is 20 feet,” Honeycutt said, pointing to the extended tape measure. “If someone is parked here, then it turns it into a one-lane road. That’s wrong. I still think if we don’t define some of these things in that development, we’ve got problems.”
Listening to his concerns, County Planning Director Penelope G. Karagounis clarified that the section of the ordinance relating to street requirements, which calls for a minimum of 20 feet for pavement width, is actually pulled from the county’s Unified Development Ordinance.
As such, she said the real concern should be updating the UDO to provide for higher standards in all subdivisions.
“Then we need to change that text,” Honeycutt said. “It’s awful we might end up with a one-lane road and can’t get emergency vehicles down that road.”
Council has been discussing the cluster ordinance’s intended purpose for weeks, which is to promote open space in exchange for reduced home lot sizes.
Karagounis has also cited the benefits of such subdivisions to reduce infrastructure and preserve wildlife.
To help clear up some misconceptions about the ordinance, Karagounis explained its origins.
“In November 2012, we had a developer asking why Lancaster County had no planning tool for mixed development. State law wouldn’t allow it, but we realized we could do a cluster development,” she said.
She said the first developer to express interest was Jon Hardy with Lennar Homes, though he ultimately chose not to move forward with that plan.
The idea was resurrected by developer Mattamy Homes who requested the cluster ordinance because of interest in redeveloping the former TreeTops planned development district off Van Wyck Road in the county’s Panhandle, though they did not want to include a commercial portion as required in a PDD.
“They knew about the TreeTops sale and wanted to redevelop it, but didn’t want to go through the amendment process because they are not in the business of commercial,” she said. “So this is not about changing density, but about having a variation of lot widths.”
Though many residents are against the cluster proposal, Karagounis said many of their concerns can only be addressed if the county revises its UDO.
“If it’s not stated in the cluster overlay, then you base it on our UDO. But in the UDO we don’t have higher standards. My staff and I understand that the stuff in our UDO needs to be changed, but we don’t have time or money to do a rewrite,” she said.
She told council she will request funds for a UDO rewrite during the next budget cycle.
Councilman Jack Estridge told Karagounis he needed more time to consider the implications of the ordinance before he could vote on it.
“If you put eight houses on an acre in a cluster, it will create more fire hazards, more parking hazards,” Estridge said.
Karagounis said the only way for council to slow down growth is to form another moratorium on development in the county.
A few years ago, council voted to implement and later dissolve a moratorium on B-3 commercial rezonings in the county’s Panhandle.
Honeycutt likened the cluster proposal to the country’s Affordable Health Care Act.
“When the landfill was happening, come to find out there were people sending us emails who knew more than we did. And we shot it down! I look at it like Obamacare. I don’t know what’s in this,” he said.
He also said the county should be telling developers what to do and not the other way around.
“Whoever the developer is, we need to sit down with him and tell him what we want. We want some roads up there that are wide,” he said. “We need to do that with every development that comes in the county. We need to change how we do business in the county.”
Council chairman Larry McCullough had one of the final words on the matter.
“Well we’ve been saying that for a long time. We had that moratorium and we had that opportunity and nothing happened. We need to step up and make some changes,” McCullough said.
Before the vote, Estridge moved to table the reading, though council had already considered that motion at the beginning of the meeting.
The motion to table failed by a vote of 3-4, with only Estridge, Honeycutt and Councilman Bob Bundy voting to table.
Council then voted 4-3 to approve second reading, with Estridge, Honeycutt and Bundy dissenting.
Final reading will be heard sometime in January.
‘A sacred place’
Council members weren’t the only ones to discuss the cluster proposal during the meeting.
Charlotte resident Christie Davis, former executive director of TreeTops, a camp that provided programs for disadvantaged children, returned to council to adamantly oppose the cluster subdivision ordinance.
“TreeTops is such a special and sacred place. I don’t know if you know how far-reaching their influence was,” Davis said, as she read notes of support for the program from various school districts, children’s organizations and the local 4-H group.
Though the site was home to a summer camp, she said TreeTops was known for its many services, including therapeutic retreats and programs for families.
“This will impact not only Lancaster County, but the whole region,” she said.
Married couple Jenny and Terry Graham, who live along Van Wyck Road, both expressed concern with many of the details in the ordinance.
“I’m concerned about lot sizes, street widths and the distance between homes. It’s a serious fire risk,” Terry Graham said. “Elected officials and paid government officials have a responsibility and a duty to create a plan of development between the northern and southern ends of the county. If not, the real losers will be the people of Lancaster County.”
The couple, who also operate The Ivy Place, said more attention needs to be placed on infrastructure planning as growth continues to spill over from North Carolina.
“Our customers come down (U.S.) 521 and complain about traffic and stoplights. It’s hard to promote Lancaster County with all this chaos going on,” Terry Graham said. “The cluster ordinance should be tabled until a comprehensive plan is developed.”
For J.R. Wilt, who also lives along Van Wyck Road, the idea of cluster developments could be dangerous. He worried street widths would be too narrow and could pose a fire risk.
“Those things are basically piles of wood. They are highly flammable as has been demonstrated in Myrtle Beach,” Wilt said.
He worried that volunteer fire departments are not equipped to fight fires inside cluster developments.
“In five minutes those fires are fully involved,” he said. “If there’s a 20-minute response time in Lancaster County, the entire cluster development could be up and burning before the first truck got there. There would be no stopping the fire.”
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416