South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Developer drops 22-home subdivision project near endangered species preserve north of TR
January 10th, 2020

By Anna B. Mitchell, The Greenville News

The developer behind a proposed 22-home subdivision northeast of Travelers Rest has dropped the project after an outcry from neighbors and environmental groups about its potential ecological impact.

Developer Craig Roy had wanted to build a neighborhood dubbed "Crestfield Farm" next to an area where conservationists have since 1987 assembled and preserved a total of 435 acres. This particular area is home to an endangered species: the bunched arrowhead, a watery grass that lives in exceptionally rare spring-fed swamps and "seepage" forests in northern Greenville County.

Most of the homes Roy had in mind would have been on roughly half-acre lots with septic tanks.

"I don’t want to gloat," said Cindy Clark, who lives near the proposed subdivision on land that first came into her family in the 1950s, "I am just grateful for the result."

Reached by phone, Roy reiterated some of his earlier concerns with the county's handling of his application — that there was no prior notice of the 22-acre parcel's being in an environmentally sensitive area — but he declined to comment further.

During a county planning commission meeting in November, Roy said the homes would increase land values in the area but that he would need higher density to make the project financially feasible. He said at the time that he had spent about $32,000 on the project already.

Environmental attorney Michael Corley told The Greenville News he learned Tuesday that the Crestfield Farm subdivision application to Greenville County planners had been withdrawn. County records and an email Corley shared from Greenville County Assistant Administrator Paula Gucker confirmed the project was dead.

The project, which The News wrote about in early December, spotlighted the growing tension between developers seeking land suitable for residential projects and county residents and conservationists who want to protect sensitive, rural areas in rapidly growing sections of the county, from Piedmont to Travelers Rest.

It also comes at a time when county leaders are trying to implement a 20-year growth strategy that can provide affordable housing to the 222,000 extra people expected to be living in Greenville County by 2040 while also respecting property rights and reigning in sprawl — goals that are often at odds. Developing rural spaces, policy makers have noted, costs local governments more in the long-run while also irreversibly changing green spaces that make Greenville attractive.

"We've got 700 people a month moving here," County Councilman Lynn Ballard said this week. "We've got to plan growth to find houses for them."

Zoning changes underway could tighten up development rules

On Tuesday, the Greenville County Council approved a comprehensive plan that spells out a vision for growth over the next 20 years — most explicitly illustrated in a "future land use map" that shows the county's northern and southern ends remaining rural while the center of the county is targeted for in-fill development. The idea is to build and increase density where road, sewer and water infrastructure is already readily available.

"There has to be a way to be equitable to developers and non-developers and trying to protect very special areas of the county," Clark said, "and we have some that we definitely need to protect."

But the comprehensive plan itself, while a policy document, is only as enforceable as the zoning and land-use regulations the county has on its books.

"I think you are certainly seeing in the county that folks are fed up with uncontrolled development," said Corley, who mans the Upstate office of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. "It's not a situation of anti-development. It's more the recognition that not every property is suitable for a maximum-density subdivision."

To that end, the county is in the middle of updating and unifying all its development policies into a single document (the "Unified Development Ordinance") that — ideally — will reinforce the comprehensive plan's vision, said Michael Dey, who leads the Home Builders Association of Greenville. The county will hire a consultant in coming weeks and expects to have a draft ready for a council vote by March 2021. A series of stakeholder and community meetings in 2020 will give residents a chance to weigh in on the new regulations, too.

"If we're not respectful of (the comprehensive plan), it's not just the developer who doesn't know what's expected of them, citizens don't know what to expect either," Dey said.

At stake are scenarios like this: The future land-use map says an area is ideally suited for five houses per acre but then residents object and the council says no, two houses per acre would be better.

"Then know we won't be able to meet future housing demand," Dey said. "That's why it's important to pass ordinances that implement that plan. That's why it's important to get everybody involved."

County regulation requires developments be compatible with environmental conditions Currently on the books are land development regulations that residents, developers and environmental advocates all agree are too vague.

The challenge Roy ran into with Crestfield Farm was a provision of the county's land development regulations — located within Article 3.1 — that requires projects be compatible with environmental conditions or the density of neighboring properties. This provision gives the county's planning commission broad powers of interpretation, powers that have landed the commission in court at least twice in the past year.

Corley urged planners to be as specific as possible — and to put it in writing — whenever citing Article 3.1 in support or against a project.

"To me, this is exactly how 3.1 is supposed to work," Corley said of the bunched arrowhead preserves. "It was a unique environmental area, so a hard look was taken."

At a Nov. 20 Greenville County Planning Commission meeting Corley spoke on behalf of opponents to the Crestfield Farm project, dozens of whom crowded into a conference room at County Square.

"It's not just saying, 'Hey I don't like this,' showing up and yelling," Corley added. "The folks here are a shining example of productive participation. They prepare their own reports and understand the law."

Commission members voted to hold the Crestfield Farms subdivision application until this month to give Roy time to consider whether he would be willing to pay for an environmental study of the site — a condition recommended by county staff. Ultimately, he declined.

The bunched arrowhead's habitat lies in the cross hairs of sprawling residential development outside Travelers Rest, a rural wedge of Greenville County between the Enoree River and its northern branch. The species exists in two places in the world: Henderson County, North Carolina, and northern Greenville County.

"Beyond that plant, it's a unique area, a uniquely rural area that has great water resources and supports water quality in the Enoree River," Corley said.

For Clark, the process of challenging Crestfield Farm since it was first proposed in October 2019 was arduous. She and another neighbor, John Cook, submitted a technical memo on the project's potential on groundwater and the detrimental effect on the bunched arrowhead.

"It's a very high-intensity, very draining experience to opposed one of these things," she said.

Source (external link)