South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Greenville’s rural residents push County Council to limit subdivisions on unzoned land
September 9th, 2020

By Nathaniel Cary, The Post & Courier Greenville

When residents finally bent the ear of Greenville’s County Council in an open online forum Wednesday, one after another said they wanted to preserve the rural areas of the county and asked the council to approve an amendment that would limit the development of unzoned land.

It was the first time since spring, when meetings moved online due to coronavirus, that council listened to open public comment on items outside its own set agenda.

Eleven speakers representing locations across the county urged the council to pass an amendment to the county’s land development rules that would add teeth to the comprehensive plan passed in 2019. It is intended to limit new residential development – particularly in the unzoned northern and southern thirds of the county – to the recommendations for future development listed in the comprehensive plan.

The amendment would also resolve a longstanding issue with how subdivisions are currently considered for approval in those unzoned areas. At least five times in recent years, developers or homeowners have appealed to circuit court due to what is widely seen as an inconsistent method of approval for subdivisions in rural areas.

In some cases, subdivisions were rejected for being out of character with surrounding land uses, or for environmental reasons or due to lack of infrastructure based on Article 3.1 of the county’s land development regulations. Later, county staff told the commission it could no longer cite that article to defend its decisions.

The result, according to Michael Corley, an attorney with the nonprofit South Carolina Environmental Law Project involved in three of the resulting lawsuits, has been a system “where land planning is happening by litigation.”

The county had proposed a fix to those rules which would remove ambiguity to how subdivisions were approved, but the proposal immediately drew the ire of the Homebuilders Association of Greenville and the Greater Greenville Association of Realtors. They claimed the amendment would effectively zone nearly 270,000 acres of unzoned land in the county, limiting property resale values by limiting the number of houses that could be built.

The council then pumped the brakes on that plan, saying it needed more public discussion.

On Wednesday, it got an earful from affected residents who said the amendment would protect the county from overdevelopment. No one spoke against the amendment.

Betsy George and her husband live on 145 acres near Jones Gap State Park on Old Camp Creek Road in northern Greenville. They’ve protected most of the acreage from development and have an apple orchard and sell honey at a roadside stand.

“We feel a huge responsibility to this environment in which we live,” George said. “To say that this part of Greenville County is special and unique seems such an understatement.”

She said they’ve seen large tracts of land nearby go up for sale in recent years as owners cash in on the area’s growth.

The amendment the council is considering is in alignment with its own plans for the county’s growth, she said. It would allow more density near suburban areas while maintaining rural density – one house for every two acres – on others.

“If unchecked growth is allowed here, there will be no going back,” George said.

Letitia Short told the council she lives on 12 acres next to Saluda Lake and has watched as sediment from upstream farming and development has washed down the river and is slowly filling up the lake.

“If we allow developers to build irresponsibly in Greenville County, our rural beauty is at risk,” Short said.

Melanie Ruhlman lives along the North Saluda River and is president of Save Our Saluda, a nonprofit watershed protection group. She said the council should back its own comprehensive plan, which was developed with broad involvement of stakeholders, by passing the amendment .

“The role of council should not be that everyone gets the highest dollar for their property,” Ruhlman said. “Land prices are already rising everywhere. By allowing uncontrolled sprawl into our rural areas, we will not only lose what makes our area unique, but it will drive up land prices even more, making dreams like ours to live here and raise a family outside of a crowded subdivision untenable.”

Andrea Cooper, executive director of the environmental advocacy nonprofit Upstate Forever, said the proposed amendment shouldn’t have come as a surprise since it follows the comprehensive plan .

“Taxpaying residents are understandably frustrated when plans sit on a shelf and regulations result in far different outcomes than envisioned in adopted plans,” Cooper said.

This amendment would give the council the chance to implement its comprehensive plan. Not doing so would bring more frustration to residents who spent years helping shape that plan, she said.

Council has sent the proposed amendment for its staff to review. It would require two more readings to pass. Since Wednesday’s meeting was limited to public comment with no agenda items, councilmembers didn’t address issues brought before them by the public.

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