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Councilman denies conflict, rejects call for recusal in Greenville County rezoning vote

NAI Earle Furman Old Grove Road

NAI Earle Furman is the listing agency for a number of vacant industrial properties close to a controversial rezoning request on Old Grove Road in Greenville, on May 1, 2021. 

The commercial real estate firm where Greenville County Councilman Chris Harrison is a broker is the listing agent for hundreds of acres of land near a site in West Greenville where a national homebuilder plans to build 481 houses if a rezoning request is approved.

In response to questions from The Post and Courier, Harrison said he has no financial stake in the approval of rezoning the property on Old Grove Road from industrial to residential. The issue is on the agenda for a final vote at the council’s May 4 meeting. Some on council and in the community have raised questions about Harrison’s connection to the project.

Harrison led the charge among members of County Council to rezone the property against the wishes of councilmen Lynn Ballard and Ennis Fant, who each represent one side of the road, and some residents.

Harrison is a senior associate with NAI Earle Furman, the Greenville-based commercial real estate brokerage affiliated with global brand NAI Global. Harrison specializes in investment properties, particularly self-storage and retail sites.

NAI Earle Furman is the listing agency for the Augusta Grove Business Park, formerly known as The Matrix. That industrial park, which is being built in partnership with the county, has parcels situated along Old Grove Road just south of the area proposed for rezoning in addition to a number of industrial properties in other sections of the business park.

Longtime Greenville developer Phil Hughes’ company, Hughes Investments, has a contract with Meritage Homes to sell 152 acres of vacant wooded land on Old Grove Road across from Grove Elementary School to build a subdivision, with homes starting around $250,000. Hughes bought the site, which is currently zoned industrial, more than 30 years ago and he has not been able to develop it. Hughes wants it rezoned to “R-12” residential for a subdivision of what he called “entry-level houses.”

Fant and Ballard each initially spoke against the rezoning at a public hearing in February. They have maintained the subdivision would lead to gentrification, that the residents oppose it and that the road lacks sidewalks.

Chris Harrison Greenville County Council

Chris Harrison signs paperwork after taking the Greenville County Council oath of office on Jan. 4, 2021. 

Harrison said he doesn’t want to lean on the council’s past practice of deferring to the council member in whose district a project is located, but rather assess each project's merits for the county as whole. He pointed to the county’s comprehensive plan, which calls for suburban mixed-use in the area rather than industrial, and to the county planning staff’s recommendation of approval for the project. Harrison is a former planner with the county.

Bruce Wilson, a community activist who was raised in west Greenville, called on Harrison to recuse himself from the deciding vote and said he filed a complaint with the state ethics commission about Harrison related to the rezoning.

“I just believe there’s a conflict of interest and he shouldn’t be allowed to vote on that proposed site,” Wilson said. “I think County Council rules prohibit him from voting. I really do.”

Harrison is also part of an investment group that owns a site on Augusta Road about two miles from the proposed subdivision that could be used for outdoor storage for boats and recreational vehicles. Harrison closed on the purchase as part of a group of investors under the name Augusta Road Storage, LLC in December 2020, just more than a month after he was elected to council.

There are at least two other long-time storage facilities in the vicinity of Old Grove Road.

The storage site is located at the long-vacant Community Cash grocery store located next to a Dollar General on U.S. 25. Harrison said he closed on a contract for the facility prior to his election to County Council and that the investment group did not plan to build it out as a full self-storage site. It is zoned commercial and is listed in marketing material for part of the site listed for sale, also by NAI Earle Furman, as being used for boat and RV storage.

Former Community Cash grocery store on Augusta Road, U.S. 25

The site of the former Community Cash grocery store on U.S. 25 partially-owned by Greenville County Councilman Chris Harrison that is marketed for boat and RV storage, on May 1, 2021.

Harrison said his team is working with a trucking company on a long-term lease to use the location for truck storage. He said he has no plans to build a storage facility there and that it would continue to be used as outdoor storage. He scoffed at the idea that the investment site two miles from the zoning case was a conflict of interest.

“That’s just a reach,” Harrison said. “That’s looking for something that’s not there, in my opinion.”

County Council Chair Willis Meadows said he spoke two weeks ago with Harrison about whether he should recuse himself. Meadows said he told Harrison he needed to be sure he was avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest, Meadows said.

“The way that I have done it personally is if there’s the possibility of any hint of it being traced back to me or my family, or any business associates might be affected, I just recuse myself,” Meadows said. “I think it’s better to err on that side.”

But that decision is entirely up to Harrison. County Council rules mirror state ethics laws, said County Attorney Mark Tollison. Those laws require officials to self-monitor and self-report any potential conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from discussion and voting. A council member would fill out a form to state the reason for the recusal, typically when a conflict first surfaces, and would continue to recuse themselves through the process, Meadows said.

Meadows, Fant, Ballard and council members Michael Barnes and Xanthene Norris opposed the Old Grove Road rezoning at second reading in April.

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Harrison said he did not publicly disclose his connection to the site because he does not believe he has anything to gain financially in the rezoning. Harrison isn’t a shareholder in the company and would not profit from sales of the nearby industrial sites, he said.

“I don’t plan to recuse myself because there’s no reason to, in my opinion,” he said.

Harrison said he has “not a thing” to do with the sites at the industrial park.

“They’re completely separate brokers,” he said. “I have no monetary gain from even them selling something in Augusta Grove. I would get nothing from that.”

Fant said Harrison should recuse himself.

“If you’ve got an ethics complaint, you really should not be voting if the ethics complaint is regarding this issue,” Fant said.

A pending ethics complaint does not preclude an official from voting and anyone can file a complaint. The complaint itself does not become public or carry weight until it is resolved, usually by plea or decision by the ethics commission.

Harrison said he was aware a complaint was filed but it did not change his position.

Final vote or a precursor?

Fant said he has lobbied for a proposal that would incorporate at least some affordable housing into the Old Grove Road subdivision. He said a Greenville-based home builder called Century Complete has offered to buy the entire site or a portion of it for houses in the $170,000-$190,000 price range.

Fant, a real estate broker himself, said he has no financial stake in the development and would not act as a broker or agent on home sales there because Century Complete’s business model is to sell direct to homebuyers.

If council approves, the final vote could be held until a flexible review district rezoning could be approved to allow for the affordable housing portion of the project, he said.

Barnes notified the council ahead of its May 4 meeting that he plans to request amendments be introduced at final reading. Amendments are typically reserved for second reading. If allowed, Barnes may then ask to amend the rezoning request to “R-7.5,” according to the council’s agenda. That zoning would allow smaller lots and more than 880 houses could be built on the site.

Fant said he believes that Barnes’ motion will be withdrawn. It is unclear how the council plans to vote on final reading.

Fant said he hopes council will establish a community improvement district at the Old Grove Road site so any tax revenue generated by the project would be used to pay for sidewalks along the road. Residents and school children walk on the road or in the ditches to avoid traffic, he said.

Old Grove Road

Grove Elementary School is across Old Grove Road from a 152-acre piece of land in Piedmont that could be developed into a subdivision. But two Greenville County councilmen expressed concerns about traffic along the road and a lack of sidewalks.

Fant and Ballard each have claimed rezoning would gentrify the area. Some of the current residents are seniors on fixed income. Others are among the county’s poorest residents and either rent older brick ranches or live in trailer parks along the road, Fant said.

Harrison said he will continue to advocate for a holistic approach to project approvals rather than deferring to other council members. He maintained that the Old Grove Road project should be approved because the county does not want industrial there.

“I think it’s the correct play from a land-planning standpoint and from a county-as-a-whole standpoint,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he has studied the claims of gentrification on Old Grove Road and that 30 percent of nearby properties would already be valued greater than the $250,000 entry price the builders have suggested. For those residences below that value, it would take an average of 25 years for them all to reach $250,000 in assessed value, he said.

The average increase in taxes over 25 years would be $1,200, which he said does not present an immediate threat of displacement that some council members have suggested. He said gentrification can be an issue when projects immediately threaten to displace residents but in this case, “it’s not exactly what they’re saying it would be.”

Follow Nathaniel Cary on Twitter at @nathanielcary

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