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‘Dare to be different,’ say Columbus area residents

David Maxwell says he likes being able to go to a local hardware store in Polk County and buy just one nut or one screw.

&dquo;I grew up with that,&dquo; he says. &dquo;I&squo;d rather pay 5 cents more for one of them than have 19 screws I don&squo;t need.&dquo;

Speaking at a Polk County Vision Committee meeting Tuesday in Columbus, Maxwell said the small-town, locally owned stores are one of the qualities that makes Polk County special. He said the county has an opportunity to be a &dquo;rare little gem,&dquo; and he urged Polk citizens to keep it unique.

&dquo;You can dare to be different than all these other places around us,&dquo; he told the citizens gathered at the Womack Building. &dquo;We can make that happen if we get through the 7-acre legislation, along with a good comprehensive plan.&dquo;

Maxwell was among about 20 people who shared their thoughts at the meeting, organized by the vision committee to engage citizens in crafting a comprehensive plan for the county. The meeting was moderated by Columbus Mayor Kathleen McMillian, vision committee member Marshall Monroe and Columbus Town Manager Tim Holloman.

Even Holloman took the opportunity to say he agrees with the prevailing sentiment that Polk County needs limits on growth. He indicated citizens should not think he favors unlimited growth just because they may see him talking with developers as part of his job.

&dquo;Polk County is what Johnston County used to be when I was growing up,&dquo; said Holloman, referring to his former home in eastern North Carolina. &dquo;We do need to control growth. We have something precious to protect.&dquo;

Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting had come from somewhere else. Some said they want to see growth limited, but not shut down completely, while some indicated they prefer major restrictions to keep more people from moving into the county. Many said they do not want to see Polk County become like the places they left.

&dquo;I think it&squo;s essential that we consider the necessity of limiting growth, not just slowing it down, but limiting it in a big way,&dquo; said Kathleen Kent, who moved to Columbus in 1992 to provide her children a clean and healthy environment. &dquo;I&squo;ve been very happy in my decision to move here, but I&squo;m sorry to say, as you all have noticed, some things are changing.&dquo;

Kent says one of the reasons residents here have enjoyed a healthy environment is the abundance of trees, and the county must avoid losing more to development.

Others agreed. Dave Slater, owner of Slater Turf Farm and a leader in local farmland preservation initiatives, shared his vision of Polk County being the &dquo;green county&dquo; of the region. While surrounding areas continue to grow and chew up land for development, he said, Polk County can remain in effect an island of green, providing &dquo;green&dquo; products from agriculture-based businesses.

Slater acknowledged that Polk County&squo;s land has been prized by developers and, consequently, priced out of reach for many people, particularly farmers. But he said there is someone who can buy the land and carry out the vision of a green county. &dquo;We have an opportunity to offer an alternative buyer of the land; that&squo;s us as a community,&dquo; he said.

Slater urged residents to approve a referendum planned this fall in Polk County for a land transfer tax on property sales. Polk commissioners have pledged to allocate at least the first year of revenue to farmland preservation by purchasing easements that would restrict development on farms. That commitment was reiterated Tuesday by county board chairman Tommy Melton, who said in 2007 the transfer tax would have generated more than $1 million for that cause.

&dquo;There will be a mass movement by real estate
people to put a different spin on this tax,&dquo; said Melton. &dquo;Get the truth out to citizens so we can get this done. It will help Polk County.&dquo;

Polk farmer Ben Lynch said the county has to put land in farmland preservation because citizens can&squo;t afford to do it. He said he inquired about farmland for sale and learned the seller was told the land could go for as much as $15,000 an acre. &dquo;If you&squo;re a farmer, you can&squo;t pay that kind of money for farmland,&dquo; he said.

Lynch said he&squo;s putting nearly all of his farmland under an easement that won&squo;t allow development. He urged other people to hold on to their land, too. &dquo;If you stop selling property, you will stop growth,&dquo; he said.

Several citizens mentioned they believe preserving farmland costs the county government less than it does to allow development. They said development ultimately results in higher taxes to provide more infrastructure and services for new residents.

&dquo;I would like to see growth and development limited; not stopped, but limited,&dquo; said David Weiss, a member of the local group Save Our Slopes (SOS). &dquo;I&squo;m for slowing it down until we can grow up our sense of responsibility.&dquo; &bsp;

Weiss added that he would like to see the county and towns work together on water. He said he&squo;s been to some meetings and seen a lot of ego getting in the way.

A couple of the people who spoke Tuesday became emotional as they shared their visions and their fears for the county&squo;s future. Lisa Krolak of SOS said she hopes current and future children will still have a chance to enjoy the mountains as she has.

She said the county should lower the cutoff in its steep slope ordinance so it&squo;s more restrictive, and applies to lots with 20 percent or greater slope rather than 50 percent as it is now. One resident said the ordinance currently applies to very little of the county, not much more than the tip of Wildcat Spur.

Krolak said the county needs smart growth, and noted that the 7-acre minimum lot size recently adopted by the county for new, major subdivisions was a stopgap measure and is not going to completely &dquo;fix things.&dquo; Coming from Atlanta, she said she knows sprawl, and doesn&squo;t want to see it happen here. &bsp;

Mike Alexrod, who moved here from south Florida to escape the congestion and pollution, says he hopes to see the county&squo;s 7-acre minimum formalized in the comprehensive plan so &dquo;we could have some assurances it will be here in the future.&dquo; He said that restriction is &dquo;something that nobody in south Florida could even propose.&dquo;

Former Polk County commissioner Jack Lingafelter said he doesn&squo;t see enough restrictions in place to keep the type&bsp; of development seen in neighboring counties from coming here. He asked residents to &dquo;take a trip with me&dquo; and visualize the beautiful rural scenes heading east on Hwy. 74. Those scenes soon disappear, he said, after crossing the county line, and become a mess of development on both sides of the road after reaching Shelby.

Lingafelter was recognized at Tuesday&squo;s meeting for being a leader who initiated the current efforts to protect the county&squo;s rural beauty. While on the county board a few years ago, Lingafelter called for a variety of restrictions to protect steep slopes and unzoned areas.

&dquo;He really started this whole thing and he took a lot of abuse for his foresight,&dquo; said Maxwell, who asked Lingafelter to stand while residents applauded his efforts.

Jack&squo;s wife, Marcy, was one of the last people to speak. She said the county will need more than a vision and a comprehensive plan. It will need restrictions in place to make the vision happen, she said. Other places that have become overdeveloped probably did not seek that as their vision, but &dquo;it&squo;s what happens by default,&dquo; she said.

&dquo;Atlanta, Hendersonville,
Greenville, Asheville ‐ Anywhere USA. How many Anywhere USAs are there? How many Polk Counties are there?&dquo; she said. &dquo;If we don&squo;t come up with proactive, definite measures to protect our green county we will be Anywhere USA.&dquo;

Tuesday&squo;s meeting in Columbus was one of six meetings, one for each township, organized by the vision committee. In addition to Columbus, meetings have already been held in Tryon and Saluda. The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Green Creek Township at the Green Creek Fire Department.&bsp; Meetings are also planned in White Oak Township at Polk County Middle School on April 10 and in Coopers Gap Township at Sunny View School on April 11.

The vision committee plans to use information gathered at the meetings to supplement the results of a countywide survey completed last fall. The committee is scheduled to complete its work and produce a final report and recommendation to county commissioners in June.