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Oconee Citizen Reporters: Culture Clash Evident in Zoning Case

A zoning case in Oconee County offers evidence of what can happen when the interests of longtime residents conflict with those of relative newcomers.

David and Michelle McMahan and Jean Jennings filed a lawsuit against Oconee County, Oconee County officials and zoning advocates last year, alleging civil conspiracy to deny the McMahans and Jennings due process regarding the county’s re-zoning process.

The suit sought to nullify a pair of county ordinances that zoned property owned by the McMahans and Jennings in a more restrictive classification – designated “agricultural residential” – than what they wanted.

An Oconee County judge dismissed the suit late last month, but that hasn’t narrowed the rift between some individuals with deep roots in the area – in some cases dating back to before the Civil War – and others who moved to the region after Lake Keowee was completed in the 1970s, according to Brit Adams, a county resident and Citizen Reporter for The Nerve.

“This is about property rights: the right to do with your property what you think is best for you and your family,” he said. “There are some people here who only care about their own property values, rather than looking at the bigger picture. They’re willing to infringe on the rights of everyone in order that they’ll benefit financially.”

Jennings said she’s uncertain what path she and the McMahans will take.

“The only option now is to beg or plead our case before the zoning board of appeals,” said Jennings, a lifelong resident of Oconee County. “And there’s no guarantee we will get what we want. We may even get zoned in a more stringent category.”

The case involving the McMahans and Jennings, who live in Oconee County’s North Fairview community, began in 2009 when they started a petition drive to rezone their properties from a control-free district to a designation called “traditional rural,” according to Donna Linsin, an Oconee County resident who is also a Citizen Reporter for The Nerve.

David McMahan, an Oconee County sheriff’s deputy, sought to supplement his family’s income in case something should happen to him in the line of duty. His dream included starting a vineyard, converting the 150-year-old family farmhouse into a museum, and building a small automotive repair shop, according to Linsin.

Jennings, meanwhile, had planted Christmas trees a few years ago in order to harvest them; and she also raised small farm animals, to augment her family’s income.

Around the time the McMahan-Jennings petition was circulating, another petition also began making the rounds, according to the lawsuit.

Jim Codner, a member of an organization called Advocates for Quality Development, whose membership is comprised of many affluent lake residents, began passing around a petition to have the area just south of the North Fairview region rezoned as a “lake residential” district.

Among property that would have been rezoned with the more-restricted lake residential designation were parcels owned by the McMahans and Jennings, according to the suit.

The conflict arose because Codner sought the lake residential designation to protect the interest of the neighboring subdivision, while Jennings wanted the property classified as traditional rural district because the latter “reflected the actual use of the land,” according to the suit.

Codner’s petition would have prevented individuals like the McMahans and Jennings from having a vineyard, museum and small automotive repair shop, and from harvesting timber and raising small farm animals for commercial use, according to Linsin.

Oconee County Council ultimately zoned property owned by the McMahans and Jennings as agricultural residential, a new classification which did not exist when Jennings and the McMahans began their petition.

Codner disputed the contention that the rezoning classification prevented the McMahans and Jennings from pursuing all of their proposed land-use objectives.

“They argued that the zoning class they were given would have prevented them from doing many of the things that they were talking about doing, which really isn’t true,” said Codner, a 14-year resident of the area. “That’s one of the reasons the judge threw the suit out.”

According to Codner, the county changed its guidelines on property designated agricultural residential to allow museums, one of the McMahans’ proposed goals.

Ultimately, Judge Cordell Maddox ruled that there was no civil conspiracy in the actions of Oconee County officials and zoning advocates to deprive the McMahans and Jennings of their property rights or constitutional rights.

“Zoning is a legislative process. This is an issue for a legislative body and the electorate to resolve,” Maddox said in published reports. “The electorate needs to take care of this themselves.”

The judge essentially punted by dismissing the case when he said it was a political issue and indicated that it should be left up to the electorate, Linsin said.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.

Citizen Reporter Local Government

Oconee County zoning