South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Are farms doomed by development? Sprawling growth devours SC farmland, study says
May 21st, 2020

By Sammy Fretwell, The State

Developers are gobbling up valuable farm land across South Carolina as they build sprawling new subdivisions and stores in areas traditionally used to raise crops, a farmland preservation group says.

In the past two decades, more than 280,000 acres of agricultural property have either been developed or hurt by nearby construction that has made growing crops more difficult, according to a new report from the American Farmland Trust.

Open land near major urban areas, including Columbia, Myrtle Beach, Charlotte-Rock Hill and Greenville, sustained the most substantial losses, the study said. The Charleston and Aiken areas also have had chunks of farmland converted for development, according to the trust report.

While 280,000 acres is only a fraction of the state’s total land mass of 20 million acres, trust officials say South Carolina should pay close attention to the changes. The state has less than 6 million acres of agricultural land now, the report said.

The national study, released Wednesday, said South Carolina’s farmland is eighth most at risk in the country of being paved over for development. North Carolina ranks second and Georgia fifth, the report says. Nationally, the report says, millions of acres of farmland have been lost in the past 20 years or are in jeopardy.

Stronger state and local policies, including better land use controls, are needed to save valuable farmland, trust officials say. The trust, founded in 1980, is a national group composed of farmers and philanthropists that advocates farmland protection.

“South Carolina’s farms are under some of the greatest threat of any state in the nation,” according to a prepared statement by Billy Van Pelt II, the trust’s senior director of external relations.

“This report identifies the urgent need for action to protect this land that is critical for South Carolina’s agricultural economy and its ability to grow food and other crops,’’ Van Pelt said. “We’ve all witnessed the impacts of empty grocery store shelves in recent months. We must be vigilant in protecting our farms and ensuring that our food system is more secure and resilient.”

The Farmland Trust’s findings dovetail with research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about growth in coastal areas.

NOAA research, reported last fall by The State, shows that 64,000 acres of open land have been converted to development in coastal South Carolina since the mid 1990s, much of that in the Myrtle Beach area.

The land conversion is happening because South Carolina, like other sunbelt states, is growing.

Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach, grew an estimated 28 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to a presentation last year by the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. In the Columbia area, Lexington County grew by 12.4 percent and Richland County grew by about 8 percent during the same time period, the presentation said.

Developers contend that growth into the countryside is simply meeting the demand for housing, particularly affordable housing, as South Carolina’s major urban centers continue to expand.

.“There is always a need for housing,’’ retired Columbia developer Stewart Mungo said. “People have to live somewhere.’’

But that’s a threat to agriculture and open space protection, farmers and conservationists say. Some worry that the loss of farmland will eventually limit the food supply. Food shortages are a growing concern as the COVID-19 disease pandemic has hurt farming.

Harry Ott, president of the S.C. Farm Bureau, said farmers are having an increasingly difficult time earning a living, making it more attractive for those who are retiring to sell their land to developers.

“In certain areas of this state where you are experiencing a lot of population growth, the pressure on these farmers to sell their farmland to create housing developments gets to be almost more than they can stand with the amount of money people are being offered,’’ Ott said, noting that “depressed commodity prices’’ are a major concern to farmers.

State Rep. Roger Kirby, D-Florence, said the changes result from shifts in South Carolina’s economy and lifestyle.

“We’ve been in a gradual move from an agrarian state to something else, whether it be industrial development or what not,’’’ he said. “All of this development is pretty much occurring on agricultural land.’’

Of the more than 280,000 acres converted or hampered by adjoining development, the American Farmland Trust study said 70 percent of that is low-density residential development near farms.

This type of development, which includes subdivisions with large lots, can cause disputes with farmers because new residents aren’t used to agriculture. But it also can lead to more development that eventually squeezes out farms, the organization said.

New development near farms drives up land prices, which makes it harder for farmers to expand their own operations, said Lori Sallet, a spokesperson for the American Farmland Trust.

The other 30 percent of the more than 280,000 acres — about 84,000 acres — resulted from farmland and woodlands being directly converted to high density development, including commercial businesses, the study said. That’s an issue because farming in South Carolina generates $3 billion in annual revenues, the study said.

The report relied on satellite imagery to document changes in the landscape.

Mungo questioned the report’s findings, saying he remembered few, if any, cases where his company sought to develop active farmland. Some of the Mungo Co.’s housing projects were built in areas on the edges of Columbia, but that occurred on vacant land that was not being farmed, he said.

“I’m unaware of any pressure on agriculture in South Carolina from development. It’s possible, but I’ve never seen it,’’ Mungo said.

Others say the pressure is real.

Michael Corley, an attorney with the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project, said he’s seeing increasing tensions between people who live in traditional farming areas and those who want to build in those parts of South Carolina.

“Local farms are always the ones that end up losing,’’ Corley said. “We’ve been working on preventing that intrusion of high density subdivisions into rural landscapes.’’

The state’s court system is filled with cases of irate neighbors suing farms over odors, pollution and impacts on property values. The issue has been particularly evident with animal agriculture and in high-growth counties. Laurens and Lexington counties, for instance, have had disputes between poultry farms and neighbors.

Disputes have even spilled into the Legislature. Farm interests and environmental groups agree that farmland should be protected, but they disagree on how to do that.

The Farm Bureau has supported easing some environmental and land-use regulations to help farmers stay in business, officials have said. But others have said it could lead to more pollution and foul smells that intrude on people’s lives.

Corley said counties need to do a better job controlling sprawl through zoning and land-use controls. About 30 of the state’s 46 counties have some zoning, according to the S.C. Association of Counties.

If the state had more zoning — or stronger zoning laws — South Carolina might keep traditional farming farther away from new development, which could avoid disputes with neighbors, said Corley and Lisa Jones Turansky, an official with the S.C Coastal Conservation League in Charleston.

The American Farmland Trust’s report said there are multiple ways a state can protect farmland from being converted for development.

Those include land-use planning, but also establishing agricultural districts to support farming and programs to buy development rights on agricultural land. The S.C. Conservation Bank buys development rights on property seen as important for conservation. That includes farmland.

In Greenville County, clashes over land use have sparked legal disputes between developers and those wanting to protect farm property and open land. Unfortunately, some rural communities hurt by sprawling new development are hesitant to embrace zoning, Corley said.

“You’ve got these communities that don’t want the government telling them what to do, then they are overrun by a lack of land planning,’’ he said.

Corley said, however, that all of the clashes between farmers and their neighbors are not the result of new development in agricultural areas.

In some cases, large industrial scale farms have moved into areas once dominated by small farms and small residential communities. That has happened in the past 10 years in Aiken and Barnwell counties, where mega vegetable farms have opened, clearing thousands of acres and closing once public roads, according to a series of stories in The State in 2017.

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