FLORENCE, S.C. – The city of Florence’s new neighborhood revitalization plan attracted state-level attention Monday as several stakeholders voiced their opinion before the council approved the nonbinding document that will help it craft future ordinances to stabilize and revitalize several historically depressed neighborhoods.
The council heard and discussed the concerns of eight people who addressed the council for 90 minutes before it unanimously adopted the plan that has been developed in the past 34 months. Property managers, realtors and community members came to what turned out to be the 20th public meeting on neighborhood revitalization.
Two statewide leaders in the housing industry – Nick Kremydas, a Florentine and CEO of S.C. Realtors, and S.C. Homebuilders Association Executive Director Mark Nix – asked the council to provide thorough vetting to future ordinances that might burden property owners and renters.
“The hardest issue you have right now is the unintended consequences of your actions,” Nix said. “When I see the proposal, I say, ‘What’s going to happen in the future?’ When you’re looking at these suggestions, remember the unintended consequences are the ones that affect you the most.”
The council chambers were full of people both for and against the neighborhood plan that all parties agreed is an important step forward for the Florence community. Real estate agents and property mangers wished to ensure that the council did not impose drastic measures from the plan without their input, while community members from the north, northwest and east neighborhoods said the council needs to continue moving forward.
“I can’t see, for the life of me, how you can sit here and say, ‘I didn’t know about it; therefore I don’t think it should be done. That should not be the case,” said Dorothy Hines, president of the William Heights Community Association and a City Planning Commission member. “I would rather you say, ‘Let’s look at this and see how we can get this done.’ If you had concerns, you should have been there to start with.”
Lawyer and property owner Gary Finklea said now that the property management community is aware, it will be more involved.
“I don’t want you to think we’ve been laying in wait to derail this,” Finklea said. “One thing I did not hear today is one person that said that we didn’t want to help revitalize all of Florence, so we’re unified on that. The problem is how we go about it.”
Councilwoman and Neighborhood Committee Chairwoman Teresa Myers Ervin welcomed the feedback and said that the overwhelming presence of the real estate community did not mean that they weren’t part of the current seven-month process in developing the city’s new plan. Several members of an advisory committee to the city are members of the real estate and development community.
“I believe anytime you have change taking place and you bring people together, you get a better idea of what direction to go,” Ervin said. “I’m glad everyone came out.”
Despite public input meetings, the neighborhood plan was first publicly unveiled in a council work session on Nov. 24. An attempt by Mayor Stephen J. Wukela to adopt the plan then failed in a tied vote.
“I’m adamant about the proposition that landlords should not be able to violate the law and rent properties that are not habitable, in violation of standards of habitability to rent substandard housing, because somehow they wouldn’t be able to make money if they didn’t,” Wukela said. “My view is if you can’t make money renting property in accordance with the law, you need to find something else to do.”
City Manager Drew Griffin said the next step for the city probably will be a marketing effort instead of a minimum housing standard requirement, maintenance codes or a rental registry – which many people thought was being voted upon on Monday. Griffin said such items probably would not cost the city additional funds, like many speakers spoke about.
“The next big step will be the rebranding and marketing efforts associated with re-educating everybody about the value associated with these neighborhoods,” Griffin said. “Trying to amend or change how people view neighborhoods, so a bank will loan money, so that we can borrow money, so a builder will build.”
In other business, the Council also approved Griffin’s contract with the city for another two years after it was discussed, among other contractual and personnel matters, in a 52-minute long executive session.
Magnolia Mall plans to expand. The council unanimously approved the first reading of a plan to amend and expand the planned development plan. Plans show that three additional buildings will be constructed parallel to David H. McLeod Boulevard for future retail and or restaurant uses. The proposed plan also would close North Dumbarton Road, which runs along David H. McLeod Boulevard and existing businesses such as Chick-fil-A and IHOP. A new turn lane is proposed that will free space for current businesses and future ones to expand their footprint.
The council also gave final approval to 94 parcels that sought annexation into the city. Of those, 89 came from the Windsor Forest subdivision in west Florence, stemming from tax uncertainties under the Florence County’s unified fire protection district. The area already has seen its fire millage increase from 8 to 12.7 mills this year under a special purpose district, separate from the county district. That millage will increase if the county wins a lawsuit against the SPD. County officials have signaled millage in the area probably would not go as high as the original 22.4 millage rate.
Seven more parcels received first-reading approval from council on Monday. The Planning Commission will vote this evening on one parcel seeking annexation.
The city received an unmodified opinion from the accounting firm Burch, Oxner, Seale Company a about its financial audit for the past fiscal year. The city’s 2013-2014 revenues came in 6 percent higher than the original $25.2 million estimate. With revised expenditures, this left the city with an additional $386,436 in its coffers.
Mayor Pro Tem Buddy Brand praised the city on its fiscal responsibility.
“We were in really good shape, but now we’re in even better shape,” Brand said. “With all the things going on in our community right now, for our financial statement to get even better in the times we’re in right now – with all the building in all of our community – that says a lot about Florence, South Carolina.”
The unassigned fund balance, or reserve fund, increased 3 percent to 29 percent of general fund expenditures, or to $9.08 million.
The city’s long-term debt holdings increased 32 percent to $169.1 million during the past fiscal year, which ended June 30. In May, the city issued a $12.9 million, 12-year, 3.04 percent fixed rate bond for Tax Increment Financing-based projects such as the construction of parking decks, streetscaping and infrastructure improvements. A $4.6 million bond for a new, regional gymnasium and some $16 million in debt with the Timmonsville Water and Sewer System also were added to the city’s books.
Councilwoman Octavia Williams-Blake left her seat on the neighborhood committee that Councilwoman Ervin chairs. Ervin appointed newly elected Councilman George Jebaily to the committee, on which Councilman Robby Hill also sits. Both Jebaily and Hill, like Williams-Blake, are at-large council members.
Council also approved to give city employees Friday, Dec. 26, as a paid holiday.