COLUMBIA — The city and local environmental groups are more than a year into a legal fight to challenge the city’s own zoning board over allowing an auto salvage operation that opponents say clashes with efforts to clean up and beautify a gateway with a history of industrial pollution.
The thoroughfare of four-lane Shop Road is a highly traveled route off Interstate 77 that leads to downtown Columbia, University of South Carolina football games at Williams-Brice Stadium and the State Fairgrounds.
Along the route are rows of decommissioned vehicles — sedans, work vans, pickup trucks and at least one small bus — behind tall barbed-wire fencing along Shop Road at the intersection of South Beltline Road. They belong to American Scrap Iron & Metal, the company at the center of the zoning fight.
“There’s a lot we can do and we are doing to make it a true, beautified entry into our city,” said City Councilman Will Brennan, whose district includes the Shop Road property. “Because I’d say most people coming from the east to go to USC games come in Shop Road. Do you want (a scrapyard) to be what they remember their trips to Williams-Brice to be? That’s what we’re working against.”
Before the arrival of American Scrap, local officials grappled with other industrial messes at nearby properties.
Adjacent to the scrapyard is the defunct Cardinal Chemical Co., which shut down more than 20 years ago and has been the site of past environmental cleanup efforts, and the former Intertape Polymer Group manufacturing plant, which had operated at the site more than five decades before shifting operations to Blythewood in 2013. Intertape closed the South Beltline location permanently after the site flooded in the historic 2015 storm.
Columbia officials are working with Richland County to finish cleaning up the Cardinal Chemical site, Brennan said, and there has been interest from prospective new owners in repurposing the Intertape Polymer property for a new, cleaner light industrial use.
Now the city and local environmentalists are fighting the arrival of a business they feel would be a setback to those efforts.
The city’s Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously in March 2021 to approve a special zoning exception for American Scrap at 2420 Shop Road, with the condition that the vehicles be screened from the roadway. The business plans to break down vehicles and sell the parts wholesale and required the board grant an exception to the allowed uses of the property to be able to store scrap metal on site and dispose of the junked cars.
The city sued its zoning board the same month to appeal the decision, arguing the board failed to properly consider guidelines for approving a special use at the site.
American Scrap owner Tim Dickensheets said he has paused operations at the site while the appeal is pending.
A hearing on the appeal scheduled for March was postponed and a new date has yet to be set, court records show.
The property is also partially in a floodplain and subject to additional city zoning rules for flood-prone areas, the city said.
Congaree Riverkeeper and Gills Creek Watershed Association, nonprofit groups dedicated to protected Columbia-area waterways, separately appealed the zoning decision in a case that has since been consolidated with the city’s appeal. The groups argued the site is only 400 feet from Gills Creek, which flows to the Congaree River, and directly next to a ditch that leads to Gills Creek and contamination from the operation could harm the water.
“If you’re in the floodplain, you don’t want to have big containers of gasoline and oil and radiator fluid and all that stuff sitting there with the potential for it to be flooded and then washed away or to cause harm and hazard,” Riverkeeper Director Bill Stangler said. “And that’s exactly what’s happening right now. You drive by and you look at that site and you see these stacked up containers of liquids, I mean it doesn’t take a genius to try and guess what’s in them.”
The board and American Scrap in court filings say the industrial use is appropriate and that concerns about stormwater runoff and nearby Gills Creek are the purview of state regulators and supersede city rules.
The business submitted initial documents necessary for a stormwater permit in May 2021, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said. A permit has not yet been issued, the agency said.
Dickensheets told The Post and Courier that the appeal has kept him from investing in hiring employees and improving the aesthetics of the property within view of all those driving into and from the capital city. The auto parts operation fits with other industrial uses in the area and complies with zoning requirements and environmental considerations, he said.
“In the long run, recycling is actually (more) a benefit to the environment than it is a hurt,” said Dickensheets, who is leasing the property.
Stangler said environmental citations from Richland County against Dickensheets and his related businesses in the Midlands are proof American Scrap can’t be trusted to operate responsibly at the Shop Road site.
American Scrap Iron has locations in Cayce, North Columbia and Florence, according to its website. Richland County records show Dickensheets was cited and paid fines violations related to handling of hazard waste in May 2019, December 2020 and March 2021.
Dickensheets also faces criminal charges under a recent state law meant to crack down on catalytic converter theft after he was arrested by Richland County Sheriff’s Department in September on accusations of failing to show proof of ownership of 47 catalytic converters at his facility on Fairfield Road. He was also charged by Lexington County sheriff in February with possessing a stolen vehicle and related charges at American Scrap’s Cayce location.
Columbia attorney Todd Rutherford, who is defending Dickensheets on the charges and is the top-ranking Democrat in the S.C. House, said the catalytic converter charges were the result of faulty paperwork by another employee and none of the 47 catalytic converters were stolen.
Dickensheets was charged in the Lexington County case only because he was operating a crane moving a vehicle that had been reported stolen, Rutherford said. Dickensheets didn’t know the car was stolen and had no criminal intent, the attorney said.