Patrick Archibald moved into his new apartment this month, and became the first resident of the Nexton development on the edge of Summerville.
“I call myself 'resident zero',” said Archibald, a 52-year-old technology professional who relocated from North Charleston, cutting his commute to work in Moncks Corner in half. “I enjoy seeing how things change from day to day.”
Things are changing quickly at Nexton, where the population is expected to reach as many as 30,000 as the development is built out. Up to 30,000 more could live in Cane Bay, and another 15,000 in Carnes Crossroads. The three adjacent developments cover an area about the size of the town of Summerville.
“If you look at growth in the region, it's like a tube of toothpaste that's (being) squeezed up here,” said Kenneth T. Seeger, president of the Community Development & Land Management Group at MeadWestvaco, which is developing Nexton.
Population growth and real estate development have been rapidly changing the tri-county Charleston metro area, making it one of the top growth areas on the East Coast. The creation of 10,000-home master-planned communities, however, takes growth to a new level — with developments more like towns than subdivisions.
Together, the three neighboring Berkeley County developments will become home to a population roughly as large as current-day Mount Pleasant. And while Mount Pleasant's population ballooned from 15,000 to 75,000 over 50 years, Berkeley's big three could go from zero to 75,000 residents in half that time.
Russell Johnston, 71, moved to his home on U.S. Highway 17A in 1977, and remembers how lightly traveled it was.
“You barely had to stop at Carnes Crossroads because there was usually nothing coming,” he said.
Not any more. On 17A between College Park Road and Interstate 26, the daily average traffic count was 29,100 in 2013, state figures show. S.C. Highway 176 saw average daily traffic of 8,600 vehicles on the north side of the crossroads, and 12,200 on the south side.
The once-sleepy, rural intersection that gave the Carnes Crossroads development its name “will be the busiest intersection in South Carolina” in a decade or so, said Goose Creek Mayor Michael Heitzler, a local history buff serving his 37th year as mayor. The development is part of Goose Creek, having been annexed into the city years ago.
Even before the first home was built at Carnes Crossroads, before the first apartment was built at Nexton, Berkeley County was one of the nation's fastest-growing counties — number 35 as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau. That was partly due to Cane Bay, which was the top-selling community in the state in 2012 and now has about 4,300 residents.
“Why Berkeley County?” said Ben Gramling, president of Cane Bay developer Gramling Brothers. “First of all, it's got some natural amenities. It's not far from the beach and it's got Lake Moultrie right there. It's got job growth like Boeing and all its suppliers. It's got schools. It's got shopping. And it's all happening together.”
The growth has not come as a surprise. In fact, it's come a bit slower than expected, because of the Great Recession.
Plans for Cane Bay and Nexton — then known as the Parks at Berkeley — were both approved in 2005; Carnes Crossroads was approved in 2006. Cane Bay pushed ahead, but there was little construction of buildings at Nexton or Carnes Crossroads until last year.
“We kind of started the development in this area, and they're continuing with us,” said Gramling. “I think we are going to feed off each other.”
Development across the area, and how to handle it, was considered in a 2008 report by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments called “Our Region, Our Plan.”
“I know I have a biased context, but that entire booklet kept screaming to me, 'Mike, it's at Carnes Crossroads. This is where it's happening,'”said Heitzler.
The city's response was to annex the Carnes Crossroads development with the support of the developer, The Daniel Island Company.
“We felt, and still feel, that we are building a suburban community, and those communities are typically in municipalities,” said Matt Sloan, president of The Daniel Island Company.
Carnes Crossroads isn't connected to what most people would think of as Goose Creek; the development is connected to the rest of the city by a 20-foot-wide and miles long strip of property that created the physical connection required for annexation.
Carnes Crossroads is the smallest of the three mega-developments, but it's the size of Daniel Island.
“The next few years are going to be very interesting,” said Summerville Mayor Bill Collins, who replaced longtime mayor Berlin Myers in 2011, and whose campaign platform called for attracting new businesses with tax credits. “We recognize that we are really experiencing a lot of pressure from growth. That growth is challenging but also offers opportunities.”
The scale of development will reshape surrounding areas as local governments scramble to build or widen roads, build schools, manage traffic, provide police and fire protection, plan for recreation, and figure out how to pay for it all. “We will continue to aggressively recruit business, so the 'burdens' of growth do not fall solely on the backs of homeowners,” Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler said in a statement emailed to the newspaper. “As is the case with the new Sheep Island Interchange, we will also continue to ensure proper infrastructure is in place before the growth is complete.”
Berkeley County residents already pay an extra 1 percent sales tax to fund roads and higher property taxes to build schools. Goose Creek just saw its first property tax increase in decades, which the city said was needed to expand the Fire Department; Summerville in 2012 raised its franchise fee — a tax on utility bills — to help fund road improvements.
Other high-growth areas have faced similar challenges. Mount Pleasant, the nation's ninth-fastest-growing city, recently raised taxes and fees to pay for growth-related infrastructure improvements. Mount Pleasant's administrator said new homes don't generate enough tax money to pay for the services they require, unless those homes are quite expensive.
Along with the costs and challenges, growth brings new places to work, shop, worship, and receive medical care, as businesses and institutions rise along with the homes.
“I think most people are excited to see what's happening,” said Amber Stevens, of Ladson, a barber who works in an older shopping center near Nexton on U.S. Highway 17A.
“I hope it creates jobs for people who don't have them,” she said. “I know I'm not going to like the traffic.”
Seeger said Nexton will be an economic development hub for the area. Nexton is already home to a new hotel, restaurant, and offices including the South Carolina Research Authority's Applied Technologies Center.
Some economic development at all three of the large developments could come from planned medical facilities and offices that would create jobs and new health care options. A complex planned at Nexton by Palmetto Primary Care is predicted to create 1,100 new jobs.
Trident Health and Roper St. Francis have proposed 50-bed hospitals, at Cane Bay and Carnes Crossroads, respectively. Trident challenged the state's decision to allow both hospitals, and is considering legal options following a court ruling Wednesday that upheld the two-hospital plan.
Of the three developments, Cane Bay now has the only shopping center. Extensive retail development is planned within Nexton and on the commercial edges of Carnes Crossroads, which stretch along more than three miles of 17A (North Main Street) and S.C. Highway 176 (State Road).
“Every time you add a home, it makes it more attractive to businesses,” said Sloan. “That area is envisioned to be the new commercial hub for Berkeley County.”
Carnes Crossroads has commercial land on three corners of the crossroads.
“Ten years from now that location will feel completely different, and in a good way,” said Sloan.
Nexton focused on building commercial areas before houses or shopping. That's a plus for local governments and the school district, because businesses and apartment buildings generate more property taxes. Owner-occupied homes generate less revenue and don't contribute a dime to the day-to-day costs of operating public schools.
With about 450 acres of Nexton's commercial areas in the town of Summerville, and all of Carnes Crossroads in the city of Goose Creek, municipal boundaries are now within about three miles of each other.
Goose Creek is not pressing to annex more development land into the city, Heitzler said.
“There is some interest in (annexing) Cane Bay,” Heitzler said. “I don't want to knock on doors, but if the businesses and homeowners are interested, I'd be willing to sit down and talk with them.”
Cane Bay is entirely in an unincorporated area of Berkeley County, and Gramling said he plans to keep it that way.
“I have enough confidence in the Berkeley County leadership,” he said. “They tell me they're on top of what all they need to do and I believe that to be true.”
Summerville's mayor said he'd like to annex more of Nexton's commercial district, but he's not making an active effort to do so.
“Commercial growth offers opportunities for more revenue,” Collins said. “I'd much rather run the city off the back of businesses than homeowners.”
Annexation is up to the landowner, however, and Seeger said MeadWestvaco has no plan to annex additional areas of Nexton into any municipality.
All the growth and development will bring more traffic — lots more traffic — and significant road construction is needed to keep the cars moving.
The only access to Cane Bay, with an eventual population of up to 30,000 and three public schools, is two-lane Highway 176. Nexton and the residential portion of Carnes Crossroads both empty onto recently-widened Highway 17A.
State funding, impact fees and the extra sales tax approved by Berkeley County residents will help pay for new roads, wider roads and projects such as traffic signal timing.
Last year, construction was completed to widen nine miles of Highway 17A from Summerville to Moncks Corner to four lanes. It was a six-year, $32 million project funded by Berkeley County's one percent sales tax.
Design work is underway for a $71.8 million I-26 interchange at Sheep Island, and connecting roads. Another $51.7 million will be spent to widen I-26 up to Jedburg Road and build a new interchange there.
The Sheep Island interchange will tie directly into a parkway that will run east through Nexton to Cane Bay, and west to Summerville. It will “open the next frontier of growth in Summerville,” according to the town's Vision Plan.
Plans to widen Highway 176 were included in a 2014 voter referendum, in which Berkeley County residents agreed to extend the extra 1 percent sales tax. At the same time, the county decided to scrap a traffic impact fee collected from new businesses since 2006.
The fee had been blamed for slowing economic development and was also criticized because it also applied to public schools. For example, in 2014, the Berkeley County School District paid $215,177 in traffic impact fees for Nexton Elementary School, which is under construction.
Of course, the school district's money comes from taxpayers.
More homes mean more children, and those children will need places to go to school. That's a growth-driven issue across Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.
The Berkeley County School District already has a new high school, middle school, and elementary school at Cane Bay, built on land donated by the development. An elementary school is under construction at Nexton. And in Carnes Crossroads, Northwood Assembly plans a K-12 private school near its large church, both on developer-donated land.
“We knew that location would be the real center of future growth for the tri-county and we would be right in the middle of it,” said Northwood's school director and church administrator Larry Evanoff.
Large developers routinely donate land for public services these days — schools, fire stations, libraries — and those public services become amenities for the new residents.
Cane Bay gave 160 acres to Berkeley County School District and 68 to the YMCA of Greater Charleston, for a planned sports and wellness complex. Gramling also plans to donate a tract for a fire station, he said.
“It lets people work here, live here and recreate here,” Gramling said.
Carnes Crossroads will donate land to Goose Creek. The city plans to build a fire station there within a couple of years, and is looking at adding sports facilities, Heitzler said. Several festivals and concerts are scheduled there, too.
“We want to bring them in auditorily, visually and emotionally,” said the mayor.
For parents who live in the area, all the new schools mean redrawing attendance lines.
Nexton Elementary, built for 900, will open in August with about 600 students, most of whom will come from surrounding communities. The $20 million school was part of the $198 million Yes 4 Schools campaign in 2012, which called for higher property taxes to fund school construction debt.
The Nexton school will ease overcrowding at Cane Bay Elementary, which has 960 students in a school built for 900, not counting 209 fifth-graders housed at the middle school.
Back near the once-sleepy crossing of highways 176 and 17A, Johnston, who moved to the area 38 years ago, sees trade-offs in all the growth.
“It was a quiet place to live, but it was far from everything,” he said. “Now the secret is out and everybody wants to live here. It's bustling and busy.”