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2014: Year in Review

As a new year begins, here are some of the top news stories in western York County during 2014.

Big headlines included a school bond vote, several controversial issues in local government, leadership changes after the elections, new programs in schools and a state football championship game.

Some of these issues will continue to make headlines in 2015.

York County courthouse

Residents of York and members of the Yorkville Historical Society feared this fall that the York County Council might abandon its planned renovation of the historic York County Courthouse.

In August, county leaders debated whether to finish renovating the courthouse after the $1.5 million cost of removing asbestos and lead-based paint exceeded what was budgeted.

Initial estimates had set the courthouse project at $11.2 million, well more than the $5.3 million set aside by the county.

During the August meeting, council chairman Britt Blackwell called the county’s handling of the renovation “an absolute disaster” and the courthouse “a money pit.”

Blackwell said later: “There’s just no way to continue to throw money at this situation.”

City leaders and members of the historical society leapt to the defense of the courthouse with letters of support and visits to address the County Council.

In several county meetings, city leaders and historical society members told county leaders the courthouse is essential to York for its historical importance and economically significant for the traffic it brings to businesses in downtown York.

“As soon as the courthouse employees move out, downtown is done,” said Vern Eakin, past president of the historical society.

Eakin added: “The only thing we’ve got saving our downtown right now is the county employees. They are trying to kill our downtown.”

The council in November voted to move forward with the courthouse renovation after a management firm, Cumming Construction, lowered the total renovation estimate to $9.1 million. Cumming said it would still be cheaper than construction on two proposed alternate sites.

York County needs to secure an additional $4 million to complete the courthouse. York Mayor Eddie Lee said he’s spoken to York County legislators and members of the state’s congressional delegation about securing outside funding to close the deficit.

The York City Council also voted to request that the County Council, which has discussed the need for a new county administrative building, build it next to the downtown courthouse instead of at another site in York.

New schools, more in Clover

In March, the Clover School District won approval with a 57 percent yes vote for a $67 million bond package for five construction projects, including two new schools.

The estimated cost of the five projects is about $99 million; the district plans a $32 million down payment from reserved seed money.

“Now we have a lot of hard work ahead of us to implement our plan, and work quickly and efficiently to keep all the promises we made,” said Clover School District Superintendent Marc Sosne.

To those who opposed the bond, Sosne said, “The door is open and we invite them to come and work with us.”

About a dozen residents in the Lake Wylie area formed a group opposed to the bond, arguing that it would result in one of the largest high schools in the state.

The favorable vote fell along geographic lines that divided the Clover and Lake Wylie communities. Precincts in the Clover area had a higher yes vote, while the bond failed in the five eastern precincts that cover the Lake Wylie area.

District officials estimate property taxes for owner-occupied homes will go up about $44 to $56 for each $100,000 of assessed value.

How the bond issue will affect businesses depends on how they are assessed. Owner-occupied homes are assessed at 4 percent and business tax assessments range from 6 percent to 10.5 percent, Sosne said.

The five construction projects and cost estimates are:

•  A new Lake Wylie elementary school on Oakridge Road, across from the middle school, to open in 2016: $25 million.

•  A new middle school on Barrett Road north of Clover to replace the current Clover Middle School, to open in 2016: $40 million.

•  A ninth grade academy for Clover High School in what is presently Clover Middle School, which would be remodeled, to open in 2017: $10 million.

•  An aquatics and fitness center on S.C. 274 north of Crowders Creek Elementary School to be operated in partnership with the Upper Palmetto YMCA: $14 million.

•  Athletic improvements, including synthetic turf on the fields at Memorial Stadium, and one field each at Clover High School and Clover Middle School, and renovations to the stadium including restrooms and ramps to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act: $6 million.

The balance includes about $4 million for furnishings, equipment, landscaping and other costs.

Cougars play in state championship

The York and Spartanburg football teams met in a scrimmage to begin the season.

The York Comprehensive High School team won that first game, but Spartanburg got the payback to close out the season.

Spartanburg defeated York 49-28 in early December in the AAAA Division II state championship at the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.

“They hit us on some big plays and they got us. That’s just the game of football,” coach Bobby Carroll said.

Still, it was a season to remember for Cougar fans, who packed the stands to cheer on their team during the run-up to the state match.

The fathers of four players – Caleb Clayton, Seth Wood, Drew Carroll and Bryson Stephenson – played for the Cougar state championship team in 1986. Two players, Clayton and Wood, had grandfathers who played in, and ultimately lost, the state title game in 1960 for the York High School’s Green Dragons.

The Cougars ended the season with the best four-year run in the school’s history, including a No. 1 state ranking for two weeks in the regular season.

But the quest for a state championship isn’t over. Said Carroll: “We’ll go back and work hard this off-season and try to get here again.”

New leaders elected for county, school board

Voters in western York County chose new representatives on the York County Council and the York school board during local elections in November.

Voters also re-elected two incumbents to the Clover school board in contested races.

Republican Robert Winkler will represent western York County on the County Council, after defeating Democrat Steve Love.

Winkler won the District 3 race by a 2-to-1 margin, taking 17 of 18 precincts, with Love winning only York Precinct No. 1.

Winkler, who ousted incumbent Joe Cox in June’s Republican primary, said he is looking forward to taking his seat in January.

“I’m going to work with the development board and the Chamber of Commerce to bring some better, higher-paying jobs – especially to western York County – but to all of York County,” Winkler said.

In the York school board race, retired York Comprehensive High School principal Diane Howell defeated longtime incumbent Shirley Harris by a 2-to-1 margin.

Harris, a former school board chairwoman, had served on the board for 16 years.

Howell said the district’s employees have been its greatest asset, but she’s concerned that more than 60 new employees were hired this year due to what she sees as an unusually high rate of staff turnover.

She said the district needs to put measures in place to retain good employees. “We’ve lost a lot of good teachers to our neighbors,” she said.

In the Clover school board race, where candidates debated the value and handling of the school bond vote, incumbents Rob Wallace and Sherri Ciurlik were re-elected.

Wallace narrowly won the Seat 5 race, with about 51 percent of the vote over challenger Jamie Henrickson.

Seat 2 incumbent Ciurlik maintained a strong lead over challenger Michael Nagy, with about 58 percent of the vote.

Lawn mower racing track closes

The western York County speedway owner who challenged zoning regulations to re-open his lawn mower racing track said in December he will permanently close the course.

Brian Saunders, owner of Phat Bottom Speedway, said he would not continue efforts to keep the course open after complaints from neighbors forced it to close this fall.

Saunders said the financial burden of making Phat Bottom comply with the zoning and planning requirements was too great.

“It would be required to have handicapped restrooms and basically all the same stuff as the Charlotte Motor Speedway,” Saunders said. “The changes you have to go through to make it legal would add three times what it cost (to operate), and charging $5 a head just isn’t going to cover it.”

Phat Bottom opened off Jim McCarter Road in 2009 as what Saunders called “a little backyard track.”

Saunders has operated the course for the past year. It hosted several races for souped-up lawnmowers each year until complaints from neighbors led officials to determine the site was not zoned to have a speedway. Frequent visits from sheriff’s deputies responding to noise complaints during races forced Phat Bottom to shut down for the season in September.

Phat Bottom patrons rallied to keep the track open. The York County Council approved the necessary zoning changes, and Saunders had been gathering signatures from neighboring property owners to get an exemption from the subdivision’s covenant allowing the speedway to reopen.

But after a fundraising dinner drew a smaller than expected crowd, Saunders decided the financial support wasn’t there to continue the fight.

“Most people, whether they’re fans or drivers, think it’s easier to do this than it is,” he said. “I appreciate all the fans who came out, and I hate that we’re not going to be able to re-open.”

Phat Bottom’s closure may not spell the end of lawnmower racing in the region. A go-cart track 15 miles away in Blacksburg may add lawnmowers to its schedule, but Saunders said he won’t be involved in the sport.

“I’ve got nine horses, so part of it will become a riding arena,” Saunders said, “and the rest will be hayfields and pastures.”

New programs in York, Clover schools

The Clover school district kicked off its three-year, $4.2 million Connected Classroom project.

Meanwhile, the York school district launched a full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program for 160 students in all five elementary schools.

York also launched a district program to discourage bullying and raise awareness of the problem among students in schools.

Clover’s Connected Classroom plan aims to put an Apple iPad or MacBook Air in the hands of every student from third grade through high school beginning this school year. About 35 classrooms and some 1,000 students piloted the project last spring.

The project calls for iPads at the elementary and middle school level, while high school students receive the MacBook Air laptops. Under the plan, students have a personal device which they keep for several years and can take home.

“We spent all summer retraining our teachers and a good part of the work days this school year retraining our staff on how teaching in a wired classroom is different,” said Sosne.

He says the program will improve learning.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that students will be more engaged in learning with the device, and the more engaged they are, the better they’re going to do,” he said.

Under a lease-purchase agreement with Apple, the Clover district will pay $1.4 million a year for three consecutive years for the computer hardware and software. The cost includes a full-time Apple training specialist for the first year.

After three years, the project can be renewed.

School officials said it costs about $400 for each iPad and about $1,000 for each MacBook, plus applications, software, covers and other items. There are about 6,600 students in Clover schools.

School officials said the district has had several years of budget surpluses and was able to use that money for the project.

In York schools, a new all-day 4K program was funded by the state, because York met the state requirement for a higher poverty population, said Superintendent Vernon Prosser.

Prosser said the program will enable the district to help children who qualified based on family income requirements be ready for kindergarten.

“You can get so much more instruction done,” Prosser said about the full-day program, which replaced a half-day program offered last year.

Jefferson, Harold C. Johnson and Cotton Belt elementary schools have two 4K classes in each school, he said, and Hunter Street and Hickory Grove-Sharon elementary schools have one class each.

The school district also launched a new Olweus counseling program to combat bullying; several parents complained about the problem of student bullying during a January school board meeting.

Several schools hosted anti-bullying events this fall, and in November, three York Comprehensive High School students hosted a 5K run to raise awareness and generate money for the program.

Agape opens new apartments in York

The York site of Agape Senior opened in May its new independent living apartments, The Villas. They are 31 one-bedroom and studio independent living apartments, licensed for up to 43 occupants.

The new $5 million independent living facility is part of a campus that includes three existing buildings at 1020 N. Congress St.

The campus, previously called Yorktowne Village, was purchased by Agape in June 2012.

The existing buildings were renovated by Agape, and can hold up to 100 occupants in three levels of care: enhanced care 1 and 2 and a memory care unit for patients with dementia.

“At all of our assisted livings, we offer three levels of care,” said senior solutions adviser Lindsay Davis. “When we acquired the York facility, the only piece that was missing were the independent living apartments.”

The Villas are available for a monthly fee. Rates vary, and costs include maintenance fees, utilities, three meals each day and a 24-hour staff.

The Villas includes a large front lobby, a patio with sitting areas, a dining room, beauty salon and outpatient therapy for residents and others. The Villas also has its own medical staff.

Other amenities offered by the facilities include an extensive life enrichment program.

Agape Senior, a for-profit faith-based organization that provides integrated living services for seniors, has 11 assisted living sites in South Carolina.

Used car lot flap in York

A York business owner’s plans to open a used car lot in the city’s historic district upset members of the Yorkville Historical Society.

The issue started in October 2013, when Jerry Benfield approached the city’s historical commission for permission to have a used car lot on his 3.5-acre property at 13 Cemetery St.

Residents of the historic district and historical society members vigorously protested the lot proposal, and presented a petition in opposition with more than 500 signatures.

The historical commission denied Benfield’s request, saying he did not provide sufficient site plan details.

Benfield’s property, between Wright Funeral Home and historic Rose Hill Cemetery, has been zoned general industrial, under which a car lot would be permitted.

The council in early 2014 sent the zoning of Benfield’s property back to the city planning commission with a request that the panel consider a change to a residential zoning.

Martin Foster, an attorney for Benfield, told the council that it has a legal obligation to compensate Benfield if the city moves forward with a planned zoning change that would limit the use of his property.

The planning commission later recommended the zoning remain as general industrial, with certain restrictions, said City Manager Charles Helms. He said the City Council plans a January public hearing on that recommendation.