Neighbors, supporters of endangered ‘adorable little plant’ oppose development near TR
December 3rd, 2019
By Anna B. Mitchell, The Greenville News
In a rural wedge of Greenville County between the Enoree River and its northern branch lies a swampy, spring-fed haven for a rare plant species — the bunched arrowhead — that lies in the cross hairs of sprawling residential development outside Travelers Rest.
Listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered since 1979, this watery grass doesn't feed anything and isn't any good to smoke. But it is an indicator species for a sensitive, wildly diverse landscape so unique, conservationists have poured millions of dollars into buying up and preserving 435 acres over the past 30 years to assure its survival.
The bunched arrowhead reportedly exists in two places in the world: Henderson County, North Carolina, and northern Greenville County.
Twice in recent years landowners outside Travelers Rest have pitched subdivisions that — conservationists argue — would destroy the sensitive soils and groundwater sources that have kept the bunched arrowhead thriving. Developers, meanwhile, are facing an ever-increasing raft of regulations and public opposition that they say is limiting supply of much-needed housing and driving up prices.
Pam Barber, a biology instructor at USC Upstate and previously the land stewardship manager for Upstate Forever, described the bunched arrowhead as an "adorable little plant."
"Really what's happened for this plant is heart-warming," Barber said.
The bunched arrowhead grows in so-called "seepage" forests, where foliage is fed as much by surface water as a continuous, gentle stream of clear groundwater that bubbles up through sandy soils. These forests exist in a small zone where the Blue Ridge escarpment meets the Piedmont, she said.
"When you develop land, you have driveways and roads and rooftops," Barber said. "It's not just about the plant. The Enoree River is right there. You have runoff from impervious surfaces. You hate to see all the blame on a little sensitive plant. It's really the larger landscape that the plant represents."
Two dense subdivisions pitched near preserves since 2017
Demand for home sites among the rolling hills, woods and pastures northeast of Travelers Rest — a city that has already grown nearly 15% since 2010 — is brisk and part of a larger trend. The county will add an estimated 222,000 additional residents between now and 2040, county planners say.
The area bounded by U.S. 25, the Enoree River and its northern branch is designated "suburban edge" in Greenville County's proposed comprehensive plan, which aims to curb sprawl and push dense development in already urban areas. The first of two subdivisions pitched in this area since 2017 — with 84 half-acre lots off Blue Ridge Road — came to a halt in April of this year when the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources bought all 56 acres of the would-be neighborhood for $970,000.
That property is now forever preserved as part of the neighboring Blackwell Heritage Preserve, also owned by the state natural resources department. The preserve was established 25 years ago under provisions of the Clean Water Act to help compensate for wetlands damage from construction of Interstate 85, said conservation attorney Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The state along with several environmental groups and private citizens have spent just under $2.6 million over the past three decades buying land for preservation in the area.
In process now is a 22-home subdivision that Travelers Rest developer Craig Roy pitched this fall less than 1,000 feet from the Blackwell Heritage Preserve. Roy's project, called Crestfield Farm, shows a 900-foot cul-de-sac road off Shelton Road lined with 0.57-acre lots on one side and 0.58-acre lots on the other, all flushing wastewater into septic tanks.
"Oh wow, it's right there," Barber said when she saw a map of Roy's proposed development.
'A glass of water is a glass of water'
Roy argues he has already complied with stringent storm-water regulations. His plan calls for a retention pond at the southwest corner of the development — closest to the Blackwell preserve.
"A glass of water is a glass of water. It's going to do one of two things. It's going to sit on top, it's going to percolate through, and it's going to go somewhere," he said, gesturing to county staff at a Nov. 20 planning meeting. "It's about managing that. We can show storm-water management — as strict as they are, as tough as those people are — they can manage it the proper way."
Roy has spent at least $32,000 on engineering plans for Crestfield Farm and argued at the Nov. 20 meeting that the property should be deed-restricted if county planners have no intention of allowing development there.
But with a little bit of research, Holleman told The News, any developer would be aware that this area has a highly sensitive environment.
Roy's investment, and the increasingly strict conditions on development he is encountering, are typical across the country, said Chris Jacinski, a Charlotte-based mergers and acquisitions expert in the real-estate industry.
"Greenville is no exception," Jacinski said. "More and more requirements are being added. That's a broad theme that's playing out nationally."
To that end, independent developers like Roy are getting rarer, Jacinski said, as home builders nationwide consolidate operations in the ever more difficult pursuit of their primary raw material: land. National, publicly owned builders such as Ryan and D.R. Horton have steadily increased market share over the past decade, he said.
"In 2009, 15.4% of the revenue from all new home sales in Greenvlle-Spartanburg came from public builders," Jacinski said. "Today, 48.6% of the revenue from new home builders come from publicly traded builders or foreign-owned builders."
Michael Dey, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Greenville, told The News in September he predicts under current regulatory conditions that Greenville County's increasing popularity and economic growth will actually push residential development into neighboring Anderson and Spartanburg counties.
Neighbors angry county isn't blocking development Crestfield Farm is in an unzoned part of the county, so its fate lies with the Greenville County Planning Commission, the body charged with approving subdivision applications. At their most recent meeting on Nov. 20, members voted to kick the issue to January to give Roy time to consider whether he is willing to pay for an environmental study of the site — a condition recommended by county staff:
Due to environmental issues raised, Staff recommends that ... the developer hire an independent consultant to conduct a scientific study to determine the impact of this development on the Heritage Preserve and the Bunched Arrowhead endangered species. It's also recommended but not required that the study include an acceptable distance analysis from the Heritage Preserve areas.
"We are agreeing to give the developer 60 days to work with a consultant to come back and say if he is interested," planning commission member Mark Jones said. "If not, it's withdrawn. And if so, we address this in our January meeting."
When the planning commission voted 7 to 1 on Nov. 20 to hold the application until January, Tigerville resident Julie Turner threw up her hands.
"This is ridiculous," she said. "They refuse to deny it."
Joining her was Cindy Clark, who lives on land that first came into her family in the 1950s.
"I think the planning commission would rather have the developer pull the proposal than them have to make a decision on it," Clark said. "They could have voted, but they didn't."
With Turner and Clark at the Nov. 20 planning commission meeting were 37 other property owners who live near the proposed Crestfield Farm project. Turning to them, Roy said his project would increase their property values.
"No!" they answered in unison.
Attorneys: County rules written to protect this area
Roy's project faces two challenges within the county's Land Development Regulations, added there in April 2018 and written in part, Holleman said, with the bunched arrowhead in mind. Under Article 3.1 of the regulations, the planning commission can deny subdivision applications that are not compatible with environmental conditions or the density of neighboring properties.
"3.1 really was written to address this particular geography," Holleman said. "And this is an endangered species and wetland and natural environment, but more than that, under the Clean Water Act we've all got to preserve the wetlands function of this site or the state violates its Clean Water Act obligations."
Article 3.1 — criticized by its supporters and opponents as too vague — has already landed the county in court twice since its inception. At a September planning commission meeting, county staff said they will likely remove 3.1 as they rewrite the county's development code over the next couple of years. Meanwhile, environmental attorney Michael Corley said, it appears the Greenville County Planning Commission is backing away from applying 3.1. That's a mistake so long as it remains on the books, he said.
"Pretending it doesn't exist is going to continue to generate litigation and controversy," Corley said. "In each situation where it comes up like this one, the commission should be very direct and very explicit on how Article 3.1 applies."
Corley, the Upstate coordinator and attorney for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, spoke at the Nov. 20 meeting on behalf of opponents to Roy's project. He also is representing two homeowners opposed to the proposed Ethan Richard Estates development off Tigerville Road.
The proposed subdivision's neighbors consist largely of horse farms, 13 properties on lots averaging four acres. The whole area between the Enoree and its northern branch, Corley said, is uniquely suited to large properties, he said, "because of the Enoree River, because of this extraordinary ecological resource and because of this horse culture that has developed around these properties."
But building just six homes on the site, per the average density of neighboring properties, is not feasible given his fixed costs and considering market demand for smaller lots in the $200,000 to $400,000 range, Roy said.
"That's just not the reality," he said, adding that limiting the number of homes would require jacking up the price of each. "I hope we don't follow TR and make this an elitist community."