From all indications, the Charleston metropolitan area is rapidly leaving the Great Recession behind. Employment growth is twice the U.S. average since 2011. Last month’s housing starts are up 29 percent over the previous year. The port is booming — the value of exports increased 33 percent between 2010 and 2012.
And the area’s population is growing at an astounding rate — three times the U.S. average, according to a recent report from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Development Alliance.
All that good news needs to be tempered by one projected figure included in the Chamber report.
The metro area’s population is expected to rise from roughly 700,000 to 1 million by 2029. That’s an increase of more than 40 percent in little more than 15 years.
To accommodate such astounding growth while preserving the area’s quality of life will require an intensified focus. Otherwise the region will be overwhelmed by sprawl and gridlock. It demands planning that doesn’t shy away from respecting where growth should be allowed and where it should not, as the urban growth boundary already does on Johns Island.
Intergovernmental agreements, such as the 2005 pact to preserve the Francis Marion National Forest by limiting growth in and around it, need to be applied more broadly and adhered to assiduously.
The standard response to the transportation difficulties that accompany growth is more highways and additional lanes.
But the kind of growth projected by the Chamber and the RDA is of a magnitude that can’t be managed merely with paving projects. Not if residents want to retain something of our area’s culture, character and landscape.
It will require a regional approach to mass transit, and must accelerate the development of a light rail system connecting growth areas with the central metro areas of Charleston and North Charleston. The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority doesn’t have the resources to do the job. And the recent debacle over its intermodal transportation center says that CARTA needs more than additional funding; it needs attentive leadership. The center was abandoned 15 years into the planning stage because of a fundamental error that would have required $24 million to fix. The Chamber report is clear evidence that CARTA doesn’t have another 15 years to spin its wheels on an essential element of a functioning mass transit system.
Pedestrian and bicycle accommodations need to be more than an afterthought to road projects. Every commuter who walks or bikes to work means one less car choking the highway.
Charleston County’s greenbelt program needs to be revived on a regional basis, and its assets used to greatest effect by acquiring land and easements that restrain development and retain habitat. Greenbelt funds need to be used to forestall sprawl, not for high-cost urban park projects.
And developers should look to the model established by MeadWestvaco for the East Edisto project in Dorchester and Charleston counties. It allows for substantial development while preserving forest and farmland nearby. Economic development is essential to the plan to put jobs near at hand instead of at the end of a long commute.
Over the years, as the Charleston metro area has become a favored destination not just for tourists but for those seeking a new place to live, residents have clearly stated their support for restraints on growth. Limits include the regional growth management plans approved by their elected representatives after long study and intense debate.
Since the economic downturn the attentiveness to growth issues has relaxed.
But the boom is back.
The upturn is to be celebrated for its accompanying jobs, prosperity, optimism and entrepreneurial energy.
Yet it also demands a renewed attention to growth, how to limit it and how to mitigate it, as needed.
Only then can our community be assured of retaining the quality of life that is attracting so many to the Lowcountry.