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Despite pleas, Council OKs ordinance

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Lennar Homes to develop TreeTops

Christopher Sardelli

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csardelli@thelancasternews.com

For the better part of an hour Monday night, Dec. 8, an anxious, impassioned group of Van Wyck residents and TreeTops camp supporters made their feelings known to county officials about a proposed plan to develop the former camp property along Van Wyck Road.

One by one they urged Lancaster County Council to put the brakes on a trio of ordinances that would pave the way for developer Lennar Carolinas to transform the roughly 613-acre property into a large, age-restricted neighborhood called Preserve at TreeTops and featuring a planned 835 homes.

Despite their pleas, though, council members ultimately approved final reading of all three ordinances, allowing Lennar’s plans for the property to move forward.

About an hour before the votes, Lancaster resident Ben White told council he believed the plans for the TreeTops property went against the intent of the original owner, Fort Mill businessman and philanthropist Fred C. Wikoff Jr.

“I feel there’s been malfeasance and breach of trust that should be investigated. I ask you to ask the attorney general to do an investigation of this,” White said. “I question a bunch of things this Thompson organization has made public.”

White was referencing the property’s current owner and seller, Mathews, N.C.-based Thompson Child and Family Focus, a 125-year-old nonprofit that took over the camp in 2008.

Van Wyck resident J.R. Wilt, who has made the bi-monthly trip to council’s meetings during the last two years to speak against developing the property, said succinctly it would be “an extremely bad idea.”

“The county pays no attention to its infrastructure and its property tax database that yields most of the money needed to run the county. There is too much residential, not enough commercial and nobody paying attention to the balance,” Wilt said.

He worried the development would be detrimental to the community.

“TreeTops is a very large residential development and it will place a lot of demands on the Van Wyck community and that hasn’t been addressed and the county has no plans to address them,” he said.

Charlotte resident Ande Truman, who said she had experience with the TreeTops camp, opposed transforming the property into a neighborhood.

“I know about the millions of dollars at stake and I know about the corruption that has taken place,” Truman said. “I ask you to think of attending camp as a child. Did it help you? Did it change you? Camp is not just about swimming in a lake and singing cheesy camp songs. It changes you. It’s a place where the body and imagination can run wild.”

She said the camp would go a long way toward addressing a long list of societal problems in local communities, including obesity, crime and drug use.

“Many people in the community and in this room want to fix this,” she said. “If you make the decision to develop (the property) then you will have gone too far.”

James Jones, who lives along Van Wyck Road and used to work at TreeTops, had many concerns about the proposal.

“If you build 800 homes, will it help the traffic problems in Indian Land? I don’t think so,” Jones said. “I live in a community where people love each other. It’s the best place to live and I can’t believe how well people get along. I live in a community where eagles fly, where eagles nest. I knew Mr. Fred (Wikoff) personally and worked for him. He was a dreamer. He had a passion.”

Jones said the situation deteriorated quickly after Thompson closed the camp’s doors.

“I was the first one to work at TreeTops and the last to leave. Three days after it closed, it was a mess, people came and stole all the canoes,” he said. “Thompson never secured the site and never intended to keep it as a camp. I was there when Mr. Fred’s ashes were put into the lake. I know this is all about money. Money’s what’s driving the deal, but I think it’s time someone in council stood up and did the right thing.”

Rosa Sansbury, who also lives in Van Wyck, agreed the issue was “all about money.”

“Lennar will come out smelling like a rose, while the hole for Lancaster County continues to get deeper,” Sansbury said. “Albert Einstein is quoted as saying a fool is someone who does the same thing over and over again. This is what’s happening in Lancaster County where we’ve got these developers coming in.”

She asked council to identify those who are in favor of the development plan.

“If it’s the very best idea you can come up with then where are the people in support of cluster development? There was only one person and he’s employed by the company and that should speak volumes,” she said.

Jon Hardy, who represented Lennar at the meeting and was the lone voice defending the development, said he was there to “talk about the good.”

That good, he said, includes more jobs and increased revenue for the county, an increase in volunteerism amongst residents and the creation of a sustainable neighborhood.

He also cited statistics about active adult communities similar to his company’s proposed neighborhood, which would be at least 50 percent restricted to residents over the age of 55.

“Adult communities use less water and residents travel at non-traditional off-peak times, lessening the impact on highways,” he said.

He asked council to support the development.

“The TreeTops site is a beautiful site for an unparalleled community. As residents and members of Lancaster County, Lennar would be honored to deliver a community we can all be proud of,” he said.

Changing

the future?

The future land use map, part of the county’s comprehensive plan, stated that the area where Lennar plans to build the Preserve at TreeTops development is designated as both public land and as a low-density residential area. Due to these designations, Lennar’s plan was not consistent with the future land use map and did not meet one of the requirements in both the state development agreement act and the county development agreement ordinance.

As such, council voted 4-3 to approve final reading of an ordinance to amend the future land use map to delete the “public” designation, allowing Lennar to develop the property. Council members Jack Estridge, Larry McCullough and Bob Bundy dissented.

Before the vote, several people had another chance to speak during a public hearing.

Betty Broome, a lifelong resident of Van Wyck, took a few minutes to read a variety of passages from books about famous Van Wyck residents and historic homes, as well as recent newspaper articles about the TreeTops dilemma.

“We’ve attended your meetings for two years now. Our spokespeople have stood before you. This is just no good for Van Wyck and not good for Lancaster County. We’ve worked hard to help this community,” she said. “This could be the first action that could destroy the area.”

White spoke again, adamantly opposing the proposal.

“We don’t need any more slums or things to make the taxpayer pay for them 20 years down the road,” he said. “I’ve said my peace and I hope it hits some of you where it counts.”

In defense of Lennar’s plan, Hardy said the development would actually include fewer homes than what could be allowed under the property’s current PDD-6 zoning.

“As a PDD-6 this site could be zoned at 1.5 units per acre for 933 homes,” he said.

Hardy also said the PDD-6 zoning would have required a commercial component Lennar did not want, which is why the company asked for the rezoning.

Development agreement

and rezoning

Council then shifted its focus to final reading of an ordinance approving a development agreement for the property, beginning with another public hearing.

Truman again pledged her support in restoring the camp.

“There are people ready to get involved and I’m ready to be part of the team to make TreeTops profitable again,” Truman said.

Kristy Davis, former director of TreeTops, was also ready to get back to work.

“I’m ready to take it on again and make it profitable. I’m familiar with everyone involved down to their shoestrings. These people are on board to bring TreeTops back to life,” Davis said.

Indian Land resident Melvin Threatt asked council to amend the development agreement in case Lennar doesn’t end up building its planned 835 homes.

“I think something should be added that if (they) don’t build out the cluster development they should set aside 25 acres for a school,” Threatt said.

Council then voted 5-2 to approve the agreement, with Estridge and Bundy dissenting.

Lastly, council considered an ordinance rezoning the property from PDD-6, Planned Development District 6 (TreeTops) to R-30P, Low Density Residential/Agricultural Panhandle District with a Cluster Subdivision Overlay District.

Though there was no public hearing, Estridge commented briefly on his concerns about the close proximity of homes in the proposal.

“My biggest opposition is to cluster developments. It’s not a good development and it’s not good to put homes 10 feet apart,” Estridge said.

He asked council to hold off on voting for the time being.

“Let’s give the people more time to see if someone can open up the camp. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t approve this tonight,” he said.

Despite his suggestion, council voted 5-2 to approve the rezoning, with Estridge and Bundy again dissenting.

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416