The town of Irmo is taking action to block two low-rent, multi-family housing developments by changing zoning regulations.
But the legality of that action is questionable.
At their April 16 meeting, Town Council gave first reading approval to a change in the town’s zoning ordinance that would disallow multi-family housing in the areas sought by developers. The action comes as citizens continue to raise concerns about the impact such housing would have on property values, safety, schools and town resources.
Developers have applied to the state Housing Tax Credit Program to build two apartment complexes: a 54-unit complex, known as Parkside at Columbiana, on 8.75 acres in the College Street area behind First Citizens Bank; and a 48-unit development on a 3.9-acre tract on Lake Murray Boulevard near the Hillcreek Subdivision, identified as Cooper Trace.
The projects would be built by private market developers. In exchange for tax credits, the developers agree to offer the units to tenants who meet income requirements.
Both properties are eligible for multi-family housing under the current General Commercial zoning. But the change approved by the council would remove the allowance of multi-family housing under the General Commercial category. The change will need two more votes for final approval.
Irmo Mayor Hardy King opposed the measure, asserting that it would be a “change at midstream” that could be seen as unfair to property owners who would be denied the ability to sell their land. He said the town could face a costly legal battle.
Clayton Ingram, director of marketing and communications for the S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority, said the council’s actions could face legal challenges.
“Similar ordinances have been challenged in other localities nationwide,” he said. “Fair housing laws are typically implicated in those challenges.”
Ingram pointed out that the applications now being considered for the project are still in preliminary stages. The proposals are among 35 that have been submitted statewide, of which only 12 to 15 will likely be funded.
During the public comment period at the council meeting, Irmo resident and Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board member Beth Hutchison said the council should not base a decision on a possible lawsuit.
“All government agencies are sued,” she said. “Don’t change what you are elected to do out of fear of being sued.”
Hutchison, who is opposed to the developments, said the council could seek an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office to assure the decision is legally sound.
At the council meeting, several citizens sounded off about the consequences of bringing in hundreds of low-income residents to a town that already has stretched resources. Schools are already overcrowded and students would likely have to be bussed out of town, they said.
A resident who has lived in the Irmo area for 32 years said she has always enjoyed a good “town feel” in Irmo. She said that would be destroyed by the new developments.
Town officials once again pointed out that the Town of Irmo has no authority to block low-cost housing that meets zoning requirements. The town is not given any advance notice of the proposals.
“We were blindsided,” Councilman Julius Waites said.
Lawmakers representing the area, Rep. Nathan Ballentine and Rep. Chip Huggins, are both aware of the proposals and have expressed their opposition.
It’s not the first time Irmo has sparred with the state over housing projects.
In 2016 the Housing Authority approved tax credit authority for a low-cost housing complex for seniors known as “Cinnaberry Pointe” at the intersection of Lake Murray Boulevard and Irmo Drive despite heated opposition. That project is now under way.