AIKEN - If Aiken residents are sending one message that is loud and clear, it is that they are sick of traffic jams on Whiskey Road and unbridled growth that overwhelms once rustic neighborhoods.
Residents say city officials have violated their own comprehensive plan for orderly growth at least twice in past years, and enough is enough.
Elmwood Park and Stratford Hall residents, whose homes are on opposite sides of Whiskey Road, applauded last week when the city's planning commission discouraged developments that would put more cars on the overburdened thoroughfare. The plans included a 25-acre shopping center near the houses in one of those communities and unspecified "general businesses" at the gateway of the other.
Aiken's comprehensive plan, a guide for growth, suggests low-density development on the south side, which already has the Aiken Mall and a Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe's and some strip shopping centers. Because of the strain a high-density development would place on Whiskey Road, the plan suggested growth be confined to specific areas with limited curb cuts onto the main corridor and connecting driveways that would keep some traffic off the main thoroughfare.
The plan recommended that no retail commercial uses be added south of Elmwood Park, which lies just outside the city limits, and that housing be kept low density.
A 25-acre shopping center with closely clustered townhouses behind it, as proposed by C.P. Properties, was not what the drafters of the comprehensive plan had in mind, said Planning Commission member Rachel d'Entrement, who helped draft the plan. She led the fight against the water and sewer services the developer wanted - essential to building in that area. She also led the opposition to a zoning change across the road that would facilitate dense development.
OVER THE YEARS, acting against the comprehensive plan, she said, has put the Planning Commission "in the business of making property more marketable, and that's not what we're here for."
One member did not participate in the discussion or vote. Chairman Ronny Bolton has money riding on the project: He is brokering the land deal.
When members of any public body have a financial interest in a matter, state ethics laws require they not participate in discussing or deciding that issue. Some of the harshest critics of Whiskey Road development say that's not enough - that Aiken's Planning Commission is overloaded with members whose livelihood depends on selling land or building on it.
When the two Whiskey Road requests go to the city council, member Pat Cunning will have to sit out the one involving Stratford Hall. His employer, Regions Bank, is selling the acres behind Stratford Hall to Country Home Builders for upscale housing - a deal that might depend on whether developer Gerald Waters gets the zoning change he wants on another piece of property in front of Stratford Hall, where he hopes to recoup his investment by putting in businesses.
Mr. Waters bought the land so he could build a personal access road. He told Regions Bank that he didn't want to use the same entrance as Stratford Hall.
Steve Whitley, the president of Stratford Hall's neighborhood association, said residents want the upscale houses Mr. Waters plans to build behind them, bringing up their property values. But they are leery of what he'll do in front of their homes. General Business zoning allows a wide variety of uses, including the building convenience stores.
A GROUP CALLED Smart Growth Aiken is focusing on the southside, where some traffic studies predict Whiskey Road is rapidly approaching the absolute peak number of vehicles it can handle, an estimated 35,000 a day.
"I think the genie is out of the bottle," said Bill Reynolds, who calculated the two proposed new projects would add more commercial frontage to Whiskey Road than has been added by all other development combined in the past decade. The projects would add 2,000 homes, as much as the present population of Woodside Plantation, he said.
The city's planning director, Ed Evans, said the possible impact on Whiskey Road is mind-boggling.
A study nearing completion already shows traffic counts on Whiskey Road have increased 43 percent in the past five years, and accidents on the corridor between Pine Log and Chukker Creek roads have increased 34 percent in the past two years.
The traffic consultant hired to do that study says the carrying capacity of Whiskey Road can only continue to deteriorate. He concurs with the comprehensive plan that development should be limited.
City officials' willingness to do that sometimes fades, however, when development means jobs or a broader tax base. According to Smart Growth Aiken, the city violated its comprehensive plan when it approved Southwinds and South Meadows, strip malls with housing behind them.
Neither was named, but, in a letter to the Planning Commission complaining about possible restrictions on the C.P. Properties application, developer Charles Preston Price said, "While I appreciate the need for reasonable rules and regulations concerning the development of property, I simply request that the rules as applied to my proposed development be consistent with the rules applied to other recent developments in the vicinity."
That, said Mr. Reynolds, is the "problem with granting exceptions" in the first place.
WHATEVER HAPPENS with the pending applications, which will come before the city council March 26, residents of Stratford Hall and Elmwood Park know it's a matter of time before something happens on property near them that fronts on Whiskey Road. This is the second time in two years Stratford Hall has fought proposed development in their front yard. The last time, the city council agreed to a zoning change that would allow Excel to build a telecommunications center, but that never materialized.
Mr. Waters tried to buy a strip of the Excel property to build his access road, but a strip alone was not for sale.
He says he has to put something lucrative on the rest of that land to recoup. Even city planners reluctantly concur that when the city council changed the zoning there for Excel, it created a change in its comprehensive plan.
Mr. Whitley said the homeowners' association suggested patio homes and thought Mr. Waters had agreed.
But he is insisting on the General Business designation.
Whatever goes there - and eventually across the road - will increase traffic on Whiskey Road.
Confining development to housing for now would create a demand for business to follow, Commissioner James Holland said.
The traffic concerns loom large for residents who have seen the city creep closer to them, said Holly Abele, whose 14-year-old son, Carson, is recovering from head injuries after a car struck his bike on Whiskey Road in February. He was crossing at a light that was in his favor.
"Our subdivisions are not going to be safe anymore," she said. "We almost lost our son, but God was with us. We do still have him. But what is it going to take to make Whiskey Road safer?"
Putting more on it is not the answer, she said.
Mr. Evans and his staff have started suggesting that developers should help with the cost of easing traffic, including signals and left-turn lanes for which they create a need.
Because of limited connections to Silver Bluff Road, Powderhouse Road is the only other viable north-south option, and it is a narrow, two-lane road leading into Aiken's horse district. With no alternate routes, Whiskey Road is close to being overwhelmed, he said.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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