S.C. coastal population growth near top in U.S.

Beach communities, overwhelmed by the traffic a larger population brings, have been grappling with plans to restrict or better regulate parking.

Coastal South Carolina saw some of the fastest population growth in the nation last year, according to a new Census Bureau report.

The three most rapidly growing metropolitan areas on the U.S. Atlantic Coast were all in the Palmetto State — for the third year in a row.

The Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Charleston metro areas were also among the Top 20 nationally for the highest rates of population growth from 2014 to 2015. Most of the nation’s other Top 20 hot spots were in Texas and along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The tri-county Charleston area gained an average of 48 additional residents daily, an increase from the prior year.

“The forecast is that it’s not going to change,” said Economics professor Frank Hefner of the College of Charleston School of Business. “I know some people say it will get so congested that no one will want to move here, but that doesn’t really happen.”

“It’s not bad news, economically, but there are quality of life issues,” he said. “How long do you want to sit in traffic, and what’s the countryside going to look like?”

Growth-related issues played a role in Charleston area local elections last year, highlighting concerns about road construction and the regulation of development in Mount Pleasant, Charleston and Summerville. The big-ticket costs of road projects continue to be an issue this year as the Legislature wrangles over transportation funding.

“South Carolina’s roads and bridges are some of the least safe in the country and are getting worse each day,” the S.C. Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday.

In Mount Pleasant on Wednesday night, a crowd of frustrated residents turned out to hear about plans to widen a stretch of two-lane S.C. Highway 41, which could cost more than $100 million.

“The Charleston region is a very special place to live and it has been recognized as such,” said Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey. “However, that quality of life is being threatened now in a way that we, as a community, have never seen.”

“We are already experiencing negative impacts of poorly planned growth, especially in the transportation arena,” he said. “We all need to come together to create a regional vision for transportation that we can implement quickly and cost effectively.”

In South Carolina, most of the population growth has come because more people are moving in than are moving out, rather than from births. The Myrtle Beach area saw roughly the same domestic migration as Greater Seattle in 2015, with a net gain of more than 15,000 people who relocated from other parts of the United States.

Together, South Carolina’s three fast-growing coastal metro areas have added 155,564 residents since the 2010 census, with the Charleston area accounting for more than half that total.

“In comparison (to other areas), this is still a very pleasant place to live,” Hefner said. “And in comparison, this is a very dynamic area for businesses and jobs.”

The pace of growth, as opposed to the number of additional residents, is important because rapid growth can challenge an area’s ability to accommodate the population’s needs for roads, schools, recreation and other services.

If a large metro area with millions of residents, such as Philadelphia, adds another 17,000 residents yearly, it’s no big deal. But when the same thing happens in the Greater Charleston area, with about 750,000 residents, the strain on infrastructure and public services is magnified.

Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties are all struggling to widen roads and build schools, and taxes have been raised to pay for it all. Beach communities, overwhelmed by the traffic a larger population brings, have been grappling with plans to restrict or better regulate parking.

At the same time, the real estate market is booming, and businesses have benefitted from all the new customers. The demand for homes in popular areas such as the Charleston peninsula, Mount Pleasant and the barrier islands has sent prices soaring. Meanwhile, a half-dozen mega-developments with between 5,000 and 10,000 homes each are planned or underway on the suburban fringe of the Charleston Metro area.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552 or twitter.com/DSladeNews.