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Major rezoning: Aiken City Council expected to take up downtown-area ordinance Monday

May 10, 2019 GMT

The Aiken City Council on Monday night is scheduled to consider the second and final reading of an ordinance that would, if passed, revamp the zoning of 100-plus properties just east of the city’s downtown.

The ordinance would rezone properties between Union Street, Williamsburg Street, Park Avenue and Barnwell Avenue – an area city leaders have said is ripe for mixed use – to downtown business. The 10-block swath is largely zoned general business right now. A chunk of the parcels are less than 1 acre in size.

The prospective rezoning would exclude 600 and 604 Park Avenue, the Salvation Army, according to City Council documents.

While not an incredibly controversial move, per turnout at recent meetings and comments made therein, the rezoning has raised some questions; City Council member Dick Dewar has even asked, “Why are we doing this?”

Broadly speaking, general business zoning clashes with single-family residential uses – a standalone house on some land, for example. Downtown business zoning doesn’t.

Planning Director Ryan Bland has said downtown business is much more hospitable to housing as compared to the current designation. City Council member Ed Woltz has described it as more protective of the neighborhood.

The homes in the Union-Williamsburg-Park-Barnwell rectangle – again, speaking at a 30,000-foot level – are legal nonconforming. The homes in that area are grandfathered in. But that means those homes are technically susceptible to changes and restrictions should something major happen.

“But once the house is gone, if it burns down, you can’t put a house back into that zoning without an exception, and you’d have to ask for an exception,” City Council member Ed Girardeau said during an April 22 meeting.

“By being downtown business, you can rebuild there,” Woltz said Thursday, complementing Girardeau’s remarks.

The rezoning is under consideration also as a means to better meet the city’s comprehensive plan, according to City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh.

“I think it will ensure that as the downtown portion of the city continues to evolve, this rezoning will allow it to evolve in a way … residents and properties would stand to benefit from,” Bedenbaugh said.

The comprehensive plan is a guiding document designed to inform and shape the city over the next few decades. The plan touches on economic development, transportation, housing, investments and natural resources, among other things.

Downtown business affords properties more relaxed setbacks and parking requirements, which enables “more flexibility for site design,” according to Bland.

Woltz believes that could help attract neighborhood-friendly businesses – and get the area on a thriving path forward.

“It will foster a growth that will be reflective of our downtown,” Mayor Rick Osbon said separately.

A handful of public meetings have been held on the general-to-downtown switch, both inside and outside City Council chambers. Woltz, though, believes there has been some miscommunication and rumor spreading.

“Zoning is a multi-layered topic that is easy to understand,” Bedenbaugh said Thursday, “just difficult to explain concisely.”

Planning Commission Chairman Jack Hunter, during a mid-March meeting, said the single-family home issue “bubbled up” during various community get-togethers.

“We’re not sitting up here and just creating this out of nothing,” Hunter said at the time. “Just a little bit of background.”

The Planning Commission, which advises City Council, recommended going through with the rezoning. The recommendation was not approved unanimously, though.

Bedenbaugh has repeatedly said a shift to downtown business would have negligible effects on area taxes. On Thursday, the city manager reiterated that point.

“Changing zoning does not make it worth more,” Girardeau said in April. “In other words, the assessor can’t say, ‘Well now it’s worth more because it’s zoned DB.’”

Woltz had similar things to say on Thursday.

At least one person raised gentrification concerns during City Council’s most recent regular meeting.

“A major rezoning of this sort engenders, understandably, a lot of comments and questions from affected property owners,” Bedenbaugh said in April.