Lancaster County Council passes cluster ordinance by 4-3 vote

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Residents cite population density, fire safety concerns

By Chris Sardelli

Concerns about fire safety, cramped neighborhood streets and stressed infrastructure did not stop Lancaster County Council from approving final reading of a cluster subdivision ordinance on Monday, Jan. 13.


During its first meeting of the year, council voted 4-3 to approve a countywide cluster subdivision overlay district ordinance, which residents and council members have been debating for months. Councilmen Bob Bundy, Larry Honeycutt and Jack Estridge dissented. 

According to the ordinance, cluster subdivisions are residential developments which offer an alternative to traditional subdivision designs, with their chief purpose to encourage open space in exchange for reduced lot sizes. 

The vote to approve such districts within the county came soon after a long line of residents and officials stepped to the microphone to voice their support or opposition for the ordinance. 

Married Van Wyck residents Shirley and J.R. Wilt told council they were worried about the safety of residents who would live in these subdivisions. 

Shirley Wilt said it seemed as if safety was being disregarded so the county could fast-track a plan by developer Mattamy Homes to build on the former TreeTops site, located off Van Wyck Road in the county’s Panhandle. Mattamy requested the ordinance as a way to develop the former planned development district, without having to include a commercial component. 

“There’s a hungry monster in the room,” she said. 

She also expressed her concern that emergency responders might not be able to reach homes in cluster developments due to narrow streets.

For J.R. Wilt, fire safety and overcrowding have not been adequately addressed. 

“There is no way this proposal is in the shape to do what it needs to,” he said. “Y’all should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Rosa Sansbury, also from Van Wyck, asked council to take a more proactive approach.

“You are here because we the people put you here,” Sansbury said. “And the people have spoken numerous times.”

She told council she and other residents were “tired of playing second fiddle to developers” and worried that the ordinance has “gaping design flaws.”

“The fire marshal says five houses will burn down before firefighters could arrive,” she said. “Does an accident have to happen before something changes? Why place our dedicated firefighters in harm’s way if it can be avoided?”

Kristy Davis, former executive director of TreeTops, also pleaded with council not to destroy the original purpose for the land, which was to help children. 

“If you want fame and power, you need to save TreeTops,” Davis said. “I’m asking you to do the right thing.”

Though an overwhelming amount of residents were opposed to the ordinance, it did have some support during the meeting.

Indian Land resident Kathryn Burch favored cluster developments as a way to attract growth. 

“Not every family that moves into Lancaster County will want a large house on a large lot,” Birch said. 

Smaller lots with less upkeep could be a strong motivator for young, working professionals to relocate here, she said. 

“Having choices makes our community more marketable,” she said. 

Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce President Dean Faile also threw his support behind the proposal and concurred that such developments could attract young professionals. After reviewing the ordinance, he said council members and planning staff “got it right.”

“This ordinance doesn’t allow for additional homes, additional traffic or additional kids going to school,” Faile said. 

Council reaction

Reiterating his ongoing concerns with the ordinance, Honeycutt again opposed the proposal.

Though he is not against the idea of cluster subdivisions in general, he said the current proposal had too many items he disagreed with, including street width.

He also disagreed with a section pertaining to the preservation of open space as a tool to retain the area’s “natural character.”

“Would someone please tell me how land that is not buildable or useable can be preserved and be called rural character?,” Honeycutt asked. 

He also requested firmer and more definitive language in the ordinance.

“I cannot support it like this,” he said, to an outburst of applause from the audience. 

Councilman Brian Carnes responded to Honeycutt’s opposition to the current road width.

“Mr. Honeycutt has spoken very eloquently on roads, but he is the only member on this council who voted to approve those measures in 2008,” Carnes said. 

The street requirements listed in the ordinance, which call for a minimum of 20 feet for pavement width, are pulled from the county’s Unified Development Ordinance. 

Carnes also addressed concerns from residents about fire safety within cluster developments. 

Specifically, he commented on an example many residents cited of a fire that burned several homes in Myrtle Beach. After reviewing fire reports from that incident, Carnes said it was not a comparable example.

“The fires in Myrtle Beach were caused by a brush fire that blew through their community onto the pine straw that was used as material for landscaping,” Carnes said. “The houses with pine straw went up like a match and others (with no straw) didn’t.”

“There were many causes of the fire in Myrtle Beach and there was never one mention of houses or structures being too close,” he said. 

Lancaster County Fire Service Director Morris Russell, who has spoken to fire officials in Myrtle Beach, said he read the fire report from the incident. 

“In this case, they had the perfect storm for fires,” Russell said. “I read the 100-page after-action report and that situation can happen anywhere.”

With that, council ended the discussion and voted to approve final reading. 


Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416