Mauldin City Council has approved the first reading of a zoning change that would block Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County's plans to open a ReStore thrift shop in a former Bi-Lo grocery store.
Ahead of the 4-3 vote at the Sept. 20 council meeting, members in favor of implementing the restrictions said consignment stores in central Mauldin were not consistent with the city's future plans. Councilmembers Carol King, Dale Black and Michael Reynolds voted against the zoning change.
Council will consider a second reading of the ordinance at its meeting next month but the Sept. 20 vote comes as a major blow to the nonprofit.
Habitat for Humanity CEO Monroe Free said the zoning change would inhibit the nonprofit's ability to provide affordable housing to residents in Greenville County and the organization plans to challenge the decision in court.
"Our legal counsel has told us that this will not hold up," he said. "We were trying to do it in a friendlier manner through the council. Now we will have to take legal action."
Ahead of the vote, officials with Habitat for Humanity, a single mother who lives in a Habitat house, and a representative for the property owner implored council to allow the nonprofit to move into the vacant building. Free told council several years ago Greenville County found that it was experiencing a 12,000-unit affordable housing shortage and the problem continues to grow.
"It amazes me, frankly, that you're having a discussion about something that's going to limit the ability of a leading agency in affordable housing to do more," Free said.
Before voting in favor of the zoning amendment, Councilman Taft Matney said he took exception to the implication that Mauldin did not support low-income housing, citing an affordable residential project under construction on East Butler Road and a recently completed development at the intersection of Miller and Old Mill roads. He said despite his vote he supports the nonprofit and would work to help find another location.
Mayor Terry Merritt, who also voted for the restrictions, said its proximity to the future site of Mauldin's city center did not align with his hopes for that corridor. He said he supports Habitat for Humanity and the zoning change was not drafted with the nonprofit in mind. But aging commercial developments such as the one in which the former Bi-Lo is located and a proliferation of low-income housing in the city's central district deter investment, Merritt said, and re-enforce an image Mauldin has been fighting for years.
"We can't build workforce housing for the city of Mauldin en masse, because that feeds the low-income portfolio that brokers and developers have seen," he said. "And we've had to take six years to turn that around and say 'no, we're an upper-middle income community.'"
Free said that while he was disappointed by the vote Sept. 20, he was equally disheartened by what he heard from some members of council.
"Mr. Matney said that this does not prevent thrift stores from being in Mauldin," he said. "But the fact is that it in effect eliminates any kind of thrift store from going into Mauldin and he knows that. That's the way it was designed."
In response, Matney said the amendment leaves the possibility that Habitat could open a facility in the city farther from the city center project and he is willing to facilitate that.
Free said he also found Merritt's comments disturbing.
"He said we don't need anything else in Mauldin that continues our reputation as a place for poor people," he said. "I was stunned by that, to be honest, that he would think that and even more that he would say that."
Council has been eyeing restricting the number of secondhand stores in the city since at least July, when it passed a resolution instructing the city's planning commission to consider a zoning amendment. When Habitat for Humanity applied for a business license in August to operate out of the former Bi-Lo on West Butler Road, its petition was denied in light of the pending rule change.
The first draft of the zoning amendment included language limiting the number of thrift shops allowed in the city by mandating any such new business be at least 200 feet away from the nearest residential property line and prohibiting them from operating in a standalone building. Both precluded the ReStore from moving into the West Butler location.
It also included rules prohibiting outdoor donations, drop off bins and vehicle lines blocking traffic and parking areas, as well as requiring certain signage.
The planning commission sided with Habitat for Humanity when considering the amendment by recommending the zoning change to council, but without the 200-foot residential requirement or prohibition on standalone thrift shops.
But at the Sept. 20 meeting, council voted to add those stipulations back into the amendment.
Kevin Conway, a representative for Wheeler Real Estate, which owns the property in question, said during that meeting that his company had approached roughly 100 potential tenants for the space — including Aldi, Hobby Lobby, TJ Maxx, and Lidl — since the Bi-Lo closed earlier this year. None were willing to lease the space. He said preventing ReStore from moving into the location could leave it vacant for years to come.
King said a new ReStore location would serve the city better than a large empty store front.
"I am super excited about our central business district and what we're doing," she said. "But I just personally cannot support an amendment that would prohibit this store from coming into the old Bi-Lo at Butler Square. It's not on Main Street, it's not in the area that we're defining as our downtown center."
Free said Habitat for Humanity planned the legal challenge not only to try to secure its first location in the Golden Strip, but to contest what he said is a troubling precedent.
"Frankly, it's not just legal action for Habitat, it's for all nonprofits," he said. "We have to defend the rights of all nonprofits so that communities can't do these kinds of things."