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Despite passionate opposition, Irmo Town Council votes 3-2 to keep controversial parking ordinance

Council holds heavily attended hearing on parking regulations before meeting; Walker, Condom voted to repeal the ordinance Irmo, SC (James Bowers) - One of the hottest button issues in the town of Irmo over the past year have been regulations recently adopted that barred people from parking vehicles in certain areas of their properties other than their driveways. The ordinance narrowly won approval in August of 2017.

That regulation as originally adopted, stated that all vehicles must be parked in a “designated driveway”area. The regulation further defined those areas as a concrete or asphalt slab. Any other kind of parking area would need to be approved by a town administrator. The regulation was to be implemented in stages, with the first stage set for the period of February 1 until August 1, 2018. This would allow people time to get an alternative surface in place if they needed extra parking at their home.

After August 1, a “defined driveway area” or “parking pad” could be composed of any of the following surfaces: crush and run, gravel, mulch, pine straw or a “like pervious matter.” These parking areas would have to be lined with cinder blocks, bricks, landscape blocks, or landscape timbers. If a homeowner did not come into compliance with these rules after August 1 of this year, they could be charged with failure to comply with the ordinance. This could result in a $1,084 fine. Currently, violators receive an “abatement” or notice that they have six months to begin complying with the regulations before receiving the fine. Those who do not pay the fine could face jail time as a result of non-payment.

This particular ordinance was born out of concerns that vehicles parked in areas of yards other than a garage or driveway were an eyesore that caused a drop in property values. Others said they harmed the perceptions of safe neighborhoods among residents and potential homebuyers. That theory points to the belief that cars parked across a yard give people with mischief on their minds more places to hide in the shadows of the parked vehicles.

The issue was particularly prevalent in the Friarsgate subdivision, far and away one of the largest and oldest neighborhoods in the town. Some town council members say they received frequent complaints about this issue from citizens, some of whom said they were having trouble selling their properties because of yards that were packed full of parked cars. Town Councilman Mark Pouliot said during the meeting, “We kept saying we were going to fix it, but kept putting it off and putting it off. We had to have some kind of regulation in place.” This sentiment was echoed by Mayor Hardy King and Councilman Julius Waites, both of whom fear further issues will arise if the parking problems are not addressed.

Many Irmo residents opposed to the ordinance say that in modern times, it’s easy for a family to own more than two vehicles due to a multitude of factors. Family dynamics change, children become teens, they get jobs and need transportation, grown children sometimes are forced to move back home, and this all adds to the number of cars one household might have. Others complained that enforcement of the law also might have a negative effect on those with health issues. Some find it difficult to navigate from their front door, across their yard, and into their driveway. While street parking is legal within Irmo, many streets are narrow and designed in a way that makes parking vehicles on the curb unsafe. This practice may also create an obstruction for emergency services such as fire trucks or the larger style ambulances now in use.

While seemingly easy to solve, these driveway issues are compounded by the fact that construction of a concrete driveways is a costly endeavor that is out of the price range of many Irmo citizens. Even the use of the alternative materials such as crush and run and pinestraw to designate a new driveway could come at a high cost when you factor in the labor and the material needed to line that area. Critics of the ordinance also quickly point out the obvious drawbacks and safety issues of using pinestraw, timber, and other alternative materials. Pinestraw and timbers can be fire hazards and adding it close to your home can attract termites and other pests like Palmetto bugs or roaches.

The parking ordinance has attracted considerable controversy. Even some residents who don’t have trouble following the ordinance question the validity of the "property value" theory. They have said they can’t understand why Irmo officials don’t instead focus on the prevention of serious crimes such as shootings, burglaries and auto break ins. Councilman Barry Walker, who voted against the regulation last July, calls it an overreach of government and proposed a repeal of the ordinance during January’s council meeting.

Prior to that meeting last Tuesday, a special hearing was held to allow the community to have their say on the matter. The turnout was huge and the council heard statements from dozens of residents both opposed to and in favor of the ordinance.

Several of the “opposed” residents attempted to debunk the "hurt property values" argument. They pointed to figures from real estate websites lauding the increase in the value of Irmo homes. Irmo Mayor Hardy King insisted that the parking regulations were not rooted in concerns over property values, but rather a desire to make neighborhoods more presentable. Some seemed more bothered by instances where vehicles are parked in a sloppy, scattered fashion, and suggested that Irmo residents simply park their autos neatly, no matter how many they park in their yards.

Others agreed with Barry Walker’s “government overreach” opinion of the issue. They said that parking codes should be the decisions of homeowner’s associations and not town government. There were also speakers that were frustrated that the town did not hold a public hearing before the regulations were passed, instead being allotted a time for official feedback nearly six months after the passage of the ordinances.Some even said the ordinance was causing division among neighbors. In some cases, residents believed these have harmed the community atmosphere that a good neighborhood is supposed to have.

As the meeting dragged on, some in attendance calmly addressed the council and listened to others. There were also those who became emotional and confronted both council members and other attendees in a heated fashion. At one point, both Mayor King and law enforcement officers who were on hand had to remind them to remain civil. The council members even had several tense moments among themselves,underscoring the controversy and division that the issue created. While most Irmo meetings last around 90 minutes, Tuesday’s exceeded the four-hour mark.

During the council meeting that followed the public hearing, the third and final reading of Walker’s proposal to repeal the parking ordinance came up. During the discussion, Councilman Mark Pouliot said he believed that the key to attracting new commerce to an area is to “take care of your neighborhoods first," and he believed that the issues with the cars parked here and there could hurt further economic growth. Pouliot said he preferred to amend the ordinance instead of scrapping it. “We can work on this,” Pouliot said. “We can fix it as needed, but if we repeal the regulations…forget it.” He voted against Walker’s ordinance that would scrap the laws. Julius Waites and Mayor King joined him with no votes of their own.

Waites acknowledged before casting his vote that some people may find the ordinance inconvenient, but said,“Convenience at the expense of your neighbors…I don’t go along with.”

Mayor King said there could be special provisions made for those with medical issues and other limitations until a permanent resolution could be found. King, like Pouliot, pledged to “keep working” on the ordinance. “We can come back after receiving feedback (from code enforcement) and make the changes that are necessary,” King said.

Kathy Condom joined Walker in voting to repeal the ordinance calling it “unenforceable” because of costly endeavors such as moving power lines and cutting down trees that might be in the way of any new parking pads. She urged the council to scrap the ordinance and take a “case by case” approach to the parking issue.

With the clock nearing 11 p.m., and several more items other than the parking ordinance on the agenda, the council took their vote. The result was no surprise; 2 votes to repeal, and 3 votes to keep the ordinance. The ordinance, as written, stood, at least for now.

After losing their effort at repeal, both Condom and Walker conceded that their re-election campaigns took time away from their efforts to more effectively plan for the parking issues. They committed to contributing their efforts to finding solutions to the issue moving forward.

Walker made his feelings known. He told those who remained in attendance “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I tried, and I think Kathy tried. This is a ridiculous overreach of government, these ordinances are gonna make your life miserable. I’m gonna pray for the next few years.”

The first meeting of February will be one to watch, as the council will have received plenty of response to Tuesday’s decision, and new proposals and reports will almost certainly arise. It is likely that this issue will have an impact on council-resident relations for some time. It could be months before there is a meeting agenda without some mention of the ordinance. For more information, visit townofirmosc.com or call (803) 781-5050

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