The Commissioner — Spring 2012

Commission Profile

Aiken County, South Carolina, Planning Commission

By Karen Finucan Clarkson

If planning commission meetings ran a little longer or increased in frequency, that would please Tom Biddle, chair of the Aiken County Planning Commission in South Carolina. "Due to inactivity — there have been few residential subdivisions coming on the market — we've actually cancelled some planning commission meetings over the past year," he says.

In Aiken County, the planning commission generally meets on the third Thursday of the month and reviews "any preliminary plat and subdivision; holds public hearings for large-scale developments; grants a certain, small number of variances related to platting-type activities, for example cul-de-sac length; and holds public hearings for rezoning and for proposed wireless communication towers within a certain distance of a subdivision," says Stephen Strohminger, AICP, director of the Aiken County Planning and Development Department.

The planning commission used to have some additional duties, Strohminger says. "But they had so many subdivisions to review that in 2006 some things were moved to the staff level. Now, in slower times, there's not as much work," he says.

With the exception of rezoning, the planning commissioner "is the final approving body," says Strohminger, "even for large-scale development and wireless communication. When it says 'yes,' we can go ahead and issue a permit."

While some of Aiken County's larger cities, including Aiken and North Augusta, have their own planning commissions, Burnettown does not. So the county planning commission serves that city as well. Occasionally, some of the commissioners participate in regional panels, such as "a joint committee dealing with things such as highway corridor overlays, but that isn't often," Strohminger adds.

There are nine planning commissioners, each appointed by a different county council member. While they do not have to reside within the appointing council member's district, more than half of the current commissioners do, says Strohminger. The county code requires that planning commissioners' terms of office "coincide with the current term of the council member recommending such appointment, unless a shorter term is provided."

Knowledge of planning or land-use issues is not a prerequisite to service. "What we're looking for is someone who has some interest and who is willing to put in the time," Strohminger says. Planning commissioners are not compensated, though they may choose to be reimbursed for travel expenses.

South Carolina mandates both training and continuing education for planning commissioners, and Aiken County complies. "We do it here at the county level," says Strohminger. "We provide a six-hour orientation and three hours of continuing education annually. We often use materials from APA's CD-ROM collection."

That training is important as the planning commission attracts members from a cross section of the community. "For example, we have a lawyer, an engineer, a planner who works for the City of Augusta, and a woman who used to be a county commissioner in New Jersey. It's a blend of people — some are for growth and some are for no growth. I think most on the commission right now are for orderly growth," says Biddle.

"There's a nice mix of folks on the planning commission and those who have concerns on a given issue make sure things get discussed," says Strohminger. "Sometimes the decision goes more conservative and sometimes it goes the other way. Overall, they manage to strike a balance."

Rural Development for Equestrian Business

While the lull in residential construction "is discouraging" to Tom Biddle, he admits that the slowdown has given the Aiken County Planning Commission an opportunity to get its house in order. "Anyone who says Aiken County doesn't have up-to-date regulations doesn't know their business," says the commission chair. "Granted, it was a drawn-out process, but the result is pretty concise land management regulations."

"It had been 15 or 20 years since the land management regulations were last redone," says Stephen Strohminger, AICP, director of the Aiken County Planning and Development Department. "What we have now is much more comprehensive." There were, he notes, several contentious issues — in particular, shooting ranges and tree preservation.

An update of the county's comprehensive plan is on the horizon. "In 2009 we added two more elements, transportation and capital investment, but we didn't review the plan in its entirety," says Strohminger.

"One thing on the agenda is a revamp of our flood ordinance," says Biddle. "It's written by the state but we have to review and pass it through."

Situated on the Georgia–South Carolina border, Aiken County is about 20 miles from Augusta, Georgia. The county's population, currently about 160,100, grew 12.3 percent between 2000 and 2010. It is a popular retirement destination and 15.4 percent of its residents are age 65 and over. At 1,071 square miles, the county is larger than Rhode Island.

"Zoning wise, the county is 80 percent rural," says Strohminger. It is a major racehorse training area and is known for its Triple Crown — the Aiken Trials, the Steeplechase, and the High Goal Polo Game.

"We have seen a great expansion of the equestrian community," says Biddle, "with farmland developed into polo fields. Land prices over the last 10 to 15 years have gone from $1,000 to $15,000 per acre, though recently there's been some regression."

Despite an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, the county is somewhat protected by the presence of the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site, a nuclear industrial complex built in the 1950s. "There are still 8,000 people there who are highly paid and highly educated with money to buy goods and services," says Biddle. The recent approval of two new nuclear reactors near Augusta by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has Biddle optimistic.

In September, Bridgestone Americas, Inc. shared its plans to build a 1.5-million-square-foot facility to produce off-road tires and to expand its existing passenger tire facility, which will mean more work for the commission.

"We have two other 'code name' projects," says Strohminger. "One is a $10 million investment and the other is about half that much."

"While there are challenges ahead, I don't see any of them having a negative influence," says Biddle. "South Carolina, and Aiken in particular, has a bright future. If the county continues to appoint people to the planning commission with an interest in and some knowledge of real estate, growth, development, and regulation, we'll be okay."