South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Petitioners urge Greenville County to act against sprawl in rural northern areas
October 20th, 2020

By Angelia L. Davis, Greenville News

For now, wildlife, plants and Andrew Padula exist in harmony on Plantation Road, north of Greer.

But nearby along North State 101 are signs of a boom in development that could threaten the peace that Padula and nature now share as part of his nursery and landscaping business.

Padula’s nearly two-acre nursery relies on the animals around it to make sure the plants he grows are healthy. They also add to the natural feeling, the rural setting that he enjoys.

A little bit of that goes away when things are cut down on a very large scale, like acres and acres at a time, he said.

“Contrast that to the fact that if they were to build homes with nature and land in mind, much of the wildlife and plant life would remain because there would be only one house every two acres or one house every 10 acres,” Padula said.

Many people in rural parts of the county and beyond share Padula’s sentiment.

The divide is Article 22 — the proposed amendment to the county's Land Development Regulations. It's been called "back door zoning" by some who oppose it. Some who favor it consider it a way of sustaining rural communities in the midst of growth.

This amendment sets a minimum lot size of two acres for new residential developments in rural areas.

It pulls the minimum lot sizes directly from the county’s comprehensive plan, which was approved with input from a variety of stakeholders, said Michael Corley, Upstate director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and a supporter of the amendment.

"It seems to me very logical and very sensical that the minimum lot sizes in the Land Development Regulations would be the same as what’s in the comprehensive plan," he said.

Greenville County Council chair Butch Kirven also supports the amendment, saying in an Op-Ed in The Greenville News that it is a natural next step in accomplishing what the Comprehensive Plan calls for in the unzoned areas and will bring clarity for citizens and developers on the minimum sizes of new residential developments.

"Many studies have shown, and our citizens can see for themselves, that sprawling developments reaching farther and farther into rural areas create an incredibly inefficient way to grow," he wrote.

Greer Mayor Rick Danner is opposed to the amendment, stating in a written reply about the issue to The Greenville News that he believes it would “effectively end development in the county, with the exception of property/land that is contiguous [or could be] to a municipality that could / would annex it."

"While the goal of the restrictions ostensibly appears to be to limit sprawl and control growth which are valuable Smart Growth tools, there is an economic advantage for the county to push growth into the municipalities," he said.

Concerns about the amendment by the Homebuilders Association of Greenville include fear that there won't be enough land to build homes for future anticipated growth.

Petition for change Nearly 900 of people have signed a petition urging Greenville County Council to act now to control sprawl in rural areas from new suburban-style residential subdivisions.

Article 22 is a move favored by a group of landowners in northern Greenville County, who are seeing a mounting number of dense subdivisions proposed or constructed in that area of the county.

Corley is representing a group of landowners in their appeal of a subdivision deemed incompatible to their rural community. Many of them are hoping the county will approve Article 22.

A reason for that is, Corley said, the proposed amendment addresses Article 3.1 of the Land Development Regulations.

Article 3.1 is a rule intended to allow planners to reject subdivisions that are not "compatible with the surrounding land use density" or the site's "environmental conditions.” Instead, it has been a source of legal challenges.

The Greenville County Planning staff has said, as it relates to density, the county comprehensive plan and Article 3.1 do not apply to unzoned areas.

"What we’ve been pushing for and the reason we’ve been filing appeals is to say ‘you don’t think you can apply (Article 3.1), but it’s still on the books. It’s still the only regulation we have to control these rural subdivisions,'" he said. "'You've either got to apply the law that’s on the books or you’ve got to pass a new law.’”

Challenges Some supporters of Article 22 cite "misinformation" as one of its challenges. A pamphlet explaining the petition counters that "misinformation," saying the amendment will not prevent divisions of property among family members, it is “extremely’ unlikely to devalue rural property, and it is not zoning.

The latter is one of the concerns the Greenville HBA has with the proposed amendment.

Michael Dey, HBA spokesman, said the way the ordinance is structured, “they’re essentially trying to zone unzoned areas without zoning it.”

“We get the political problem with that, but our issue with it is with zoning there is a means of appeal if you don’t agree with the zoning on your property,” he said.

“With the ordinance they have proposed, the only means of appeal if you don’t agree with the zoning of your property is to go to court,” he said. “That’s a very expensive process and it’s one that most property owners won’t be able to pursue. They just can’t afford it.”

As for concern about land to accommodate homes for future growth, he said, “When you’re going to add 100,000 jobs and 200,000 new residents to the county in the next 20 years, our estimate was that we’re going to need close to 100,000 new houses.

“Their (the county's) estimate was around 85,000," he said. "I think we’re all in the same ballpark.”

But, he said “we’ve got to have the land entitled so that those houses can be built.”

Already, he said, they’re seeing rezonings being turned down that are consistent with the comprehensive plan as it was presented because they found it to be too dense. “So we’re definitely not going to have enough places to build the houses to accommodate the growth that is coming," Dey said.

The market of homebuyers are, by and large, not looking for really low density development, Dey said. They’re looking for medium to high density, and though they don’t want to care for a lot of yard, they do want a larger house, he said.

An option An option that builders and developers would have to avoid the proposed ordinance is annexing into a municipality, Dey said, and that's already happening in Mauldin, Greer, Simpsonville, and Travelers Rest.

Builders and developers and the property owners they’re buying land from are being annexed the cities because cities are, by their very nature, more dense anyway, Dey said. “They’re more aligned with where the market is and what the market is demanding for housing .”

Additionally, he said, Greer is attractive because it has a complete sewer, gas, and water system. But to connect to it, you have to annex, he said.

“When growth occurs in the municipalities, the associated cost of the growth and its impact is assumed by the city, thus relieving the county of the burden of providing services, facilities, maintenance and other related cost while collecting their full share of taxes, Danner said. "This is a potential economic windfall for the county at the expense of the cities."

He thinks the ordinance would open a Pandora’s Box of legal issues — "Would the new regulations constitute a “taking” if you were a large land owner in the county? What if you owned or had invested in a large tract of land in the county as an investment but were now unable to sell it for it highest and best use. Who would reimburse utility providers and other service providers that have invested in infrastructure and capacity for future growth in their assigned territory that will now be unused? Will utility and service providers be willing to provide services to single homes scattered in areas of the County that currently have no service. Would it even be practical?"”

What rural residents want
The Article 22 proposal is being held as planning and development members get answers to their questions and an in-person public hearing before the entire council can be held, said Councilman Joe Dill, chair of the committee. He said he’s hoping the in-person meetings return next month.

Meanwhile, Dill, who represents District 17 of northern Greenville County, said he’s got people concerned about growth and wanting to know what the county is going to do about it.

“Some are considering zoning their property,” he said. “Whatever people want, I’m willing to help them accomplish.”

Padula, who moved to northern Greer 10 years ago from Maine to open Padula’s Plants and Garden Design, not only wants homes built on larger lots, he wants them built to control erosion. He also wants more roads built before houses are built.

“If you have homes that have land to them and not try to cram 12 of them into two acres then that’s going to be a nice medium between allowing wildlife to still flourish here while keeping a nice rural setting,” he said. “Yet, everybody’s got a nice home, they're happy and they’re not complaining about their neighbor as much.”

Designing a neighborhood with more property would cause the homes to sell faster and just be more scenic.

“This is a farming community, a rural community,” he said.

“Once you get five miles outside of ( U.S.) 25, it gets country pretty fast and that would only take that about three years to change,” he said. “Pretty soon, what was country five miles away will be a Walmart or a Dollar General, or something that is taking over a nice piece of land that had a function to it.”

What Kay Mott sees happening in the community is exactly what she and her family moved from Florida to Blue Ridge to escape: Clogged insufficient roads to handle the traffic, cookie-cutter developments that ruin the landscape, the impact to Lake Robinson which runs red likely from runoff due to land clearing when it rains, decimating the trees and stripping away all the natural beauty and along with that the disappearance of nature.

“I am so saddened to the point we are already trying to discern where to go next,” she said in an email to The Greenville News. “Choosing to live in SC is a sacrifice in many ways compared to Florida. We bear the burden of a state income tax, including taxing the pension of a retired first responder.”

Mott and her family had been searching for what they hoped would be their forever home when they vacationed in the Upstate in 2011.

They considered a number of states in their quest for a rural area with strong school and hospital systems.

“This area offered everything in terms of the lifestyle we were seeking, the mountains, hiking, biking, water access, the equestrian community, and we fell in love with downtown Greenville,” she said.”Greer is close to so many amenities, but was not clogged to the point of spending hours in traffic like South Florida where I had lived for over 50 years. We found the perfect home and moved here.”

Now, “fast forward to my perception of what I see unfolding as though I am back in SFL all over again.”

What Florida did so well that this area seems to grossly ignore entirely is the infrastructure to manage the increased population, Mott said.

“Roads are horrible and have not kept up with the rapid development,” she said. “There are no new schools to handle the influx. I understand the desire to increase the tax basis, and building more homes certainly serves that purpose, and with Covid-19 my presumption is more and more people will seek to escape crowded cities and move to this area.”

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