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County hashes out agreement

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Developer of treetops wants written guarantee that students will attend Indian Land schools

By Reece Murphy

 Reece Murphy 

rmurphy@thelancasternews.com

and Chris Sardelli

csardelli@thelancasternews.com

Just because Lancaster County Council passed a measure to allow Mattamy Homes to build more than 800 houses on the 622-plus acres TreeTops property on Van Wyck Road doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.

There are two more ordinance readings on the rezoning to consider and the devil is indeed in the details.

Both parties are hashing out a development agreement with far-reaching effects on the Lancaster County School District and local infrastructure.

Among the many provisions in the proposed development agreement are payments that would benefit the county school district and emergency services.

In the proposal, developer Mattamy Homes offers two payments of $500 per home for the benefit of Lancaster County School District, with a potential to raise more than $930,000 for local schools.

The first $500 payment is proposed without condition. To get the second $500 per-home payment, the school district must guarantee in writing that students living in the subdivision will go to Indian Land schools throughout the term of the agreement.

Though the development is in the Indian Land schools attendance area, the proposal appears to be a reaction to school district officials’ past comments that redrawing attendance lines could be necessary to alleviate overcrowding due to growth becoming a factor without funding to address it.

The payments are the type of developer-responsive support school district officials have suggested would mitigate some of the burden on schools. But, Indian Land school board member Don McCorkle said the second proposition is out of the question.

“If anybody chooses to donate any money, or monies from different sources, they may do that, but under no circumstances could they ever expect any sort of favored or special treatment because of that donation,” McCorkle said. “It’s an absurdity, it would be unethical and it would be illegal.”

McCorkle said it may be that Mattamy has dealt with local school districts in other states that were controlled by county authorities, but in South Carolina, school districts are autonomous. No one has legal authority over schools except the local school district and the state.

The school district’s duty, he said, is to provide the best opportunity for every child in the school district, fairly and without bias. If that means redrawing attendance lines to relieve overcrowding and improve education for affected students, the school district is duty bound to do it.

“We have discussed it and it is my understanding that this is the way the entire group thinks, the school board and administration,” McCorkle said. “There is no way we’re going to deny the rights of any student in this school district for any amount of money.”

County officials react

Despite the sticky situation that could be created if the development agreement was adopted in its current incarnation, county officials are saying it is still too early in the process to comment on specifics.

After learning about the payment provisions in Section 4 of the agreement, which includes the Indian Land schools stipulation, Lancaster County Councilman Brian Carnes said he is waiting to hear a final decision from school officials.

“This is the first time anybody has specifically mentioned about the school system (in a development agreement). I know the (development agreement) committee deferred it to the school system to give an answer, though I don’t know what that answer is. But I can’t see them doing it,” Carnes said. “When the developer proposed it, the committee said they can’t answer that for the school district. It’s something they’d have to be agreeable to. I’m not sure what they would say, but I assume it would be something like ‘nice idea, but we can’t commit to that.’”

A problem he foresees is if the county’s school district lines were ever realigned, it could cause havoc with any stipulations made about schools in development agreements.

“If you have people who have been living in an area for 15 years and suddenly those kids have to go to Lancaster and they know the kids in some other development don’t have to, that puts the school district in a very difficult situation,” he said. “I don’t think you can put a stipulation in there. I think there are better ways to do that. 

“There are some mechanisms you can put in place that would allow you to benefit the county and school district and not have to go through the development agreement. But we’re not at the point where we can do that,” Carnes said.”

One of those mechanisms that could be created, Carnes said, is something akin to an adequate public facilities ordinance. The idea, which council members have discussed, could require infrastructure funding from developers.

“We’d look at what is it that each development is bringing as far as impact to the community,” he said. “But you can’t put all the cost on the developer, just their portion. Say TreeTops builds on Van Wyck Road. You can’t tell TreeTops to pay for all of Van Wyck Road because they are not using the whole road and they are not the only ones on the road.”

‘Amounts a drop in the bucket’

Another issue he sees with the current wording of the TreeTops development agreement are the payments of a guaranteed $500 per dwelling, as well as another $500 per dwelling if students could be guaranteed to go to Indian Land schools.

“Those amounts, they’re just a drop in the bucket. There’s a much better way to get funding. It would only be $1,000 per home, which is $800,000 for the 800 homes. I guess that could buy a couple classrooms, maybe three or four, but that’s it and you wouldn’t be creating a new school with that,” Carnes said.

For County Administrator Steve Willis, the TreeTops development agreement presents a situation that requires input from many officials before it moves forward.

“This is not something the committee has approved, but it’s something the developer proposed,” Willis said. “This is new for all of us, a brand new concept. Obviously, we have some questions.”

He also questioned whether County Council could ultimately sign off on the types of stipulations listed in the agreement.

“In the proposal, the developer wants to guarantee kids in Indian Land go to Indian Land schools. I don’t know that the school district can promise that. I know County Council cannot bind future councils like that and they can’t dictate that. The school board may well be in the same boat and this is an issue they’ll have to refer to their lawyer,” Willis said. “County Council needs to be careful in treading into school district territory.”

Willis said the county’s development agreement committee, which is chaired by County Councilman Steve Harper and includes councilmen Larry McCullough and Larry Honeycutt, met to discuss the agreement April 22.

“They have taken it, reviewed it and are waiting to hear back from the school district,” he said. “Once the development committee is comfortable with it, then it will go to the planning commission for review. Then, if approved, it comes back to council for three readings.”

The process, he said, could last well into the summer or fall.

“If the development committee says in two weeks they’re happy, it’ll be June before it gets to the planning commission, then July or August at the earliest when it can come back to County Council, and even that’s probably not going to happen that quickly,” Willis said.

He also noted the agreement will look different once its final incarnation is revealed.

“People have been calling the county and saying $500 is outrageous, but no one’s approved anything yet,” he said.

Also among the items in the proposed development agreement are per-house closing assessments of $75 each for Lancaster County Fire Services and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office.

There is no indication if the assessment would go directly to the Charlotte Road/Van Wyck Volunteer Fire Department, the fire district in which the proposed neighborhood is located.

Still too early to comment

With the agreement still being developed, McCullough could not provide specifics about their discussions.

“Since this is a contract, we went into executive session. We talked about the proposal, a counter-proposal and spoke about where we go from this point and now we’ve made some recommendations that are being discussed,” he said. “After you go through one or more iterations, you come up with an agreement that is agreeable and palatable with the county and that is agreeable and palatable with the developer. Then you go forward with the recommendation from the development agreement committee.”

Until discussions are complete, McCullough  said he could not comment on the details of any of the versions.

“We’re in the development agreement negotiating portion and it’s executive session material,” he said. “We’ve requested input from the school board and we want input from them. What I can say is stay tuned, but this is where we are right now.”

He also commented that the process would not be quick.

“We haven’t really done a development agreement since 2008. In the past, development agreements were done ad hoc and we don’t want to do ad hoc anymore. We want a process. We want to show when you have this type of development, you go through the committee and we’re transparent with the process, so there are no surprises,” he said.

Part of the reason for the lengthy process, McCullough said, is to guarantee the county is not left with unexpected costs or an inferior project.

“We’ve had some developers come in and been outstanding and some developers come in and have not been of the savory type. We want to help remediate it,” McCullough said. “If some things are not done, there’s going to be some repercussions, and if they are done, here’s the rewards. The developer needs to know and the community needs to know, so there are no surprises.”