LEXINGTON — In an effort to curb traffic, the fastest-growing county in the Midlands is limiting the number of homes per acre it allows in the expanding and largely affluent neighborhoods rising between the city of Lexington and Lake Murray.
The Lexington County Council earlier this year initiated an ordinance to hold homes to four per acre in any future proposed subdivisions in an area bordered by Interstate 20, the lake and Calks Ferry Road, county staff said.
But homebuilders say similar actions have backfired elsewhere in the state.
“Nobody wants to stop growth; we want to have smart growth,” said County Councilman Darrel Hudson, who introduced the measure that mostly only affects the district he represents.
Lexington County is part of a growth spurt in the state that grew by 1.3 percent in 2018 while adding 62,908 residents, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.
Horry County has been the state's fastest-growing county at 3.5 percent, followed by Berkeley County, where Charleston suburbs drove a 3.1 percent change from 2017 to 2018. Lexington County grew 1.4 percent in that period.
Hudson said his area’s high-performing school district has brought more people into the neighborhoods, and Lake Murray has become a destination for many in the Midlands.
And, according to estimates, the county is expecting 20 percent more population expansion over the next eight or nine years.
“Lexington County is exploding and has been exploding for years,” Hudson said. “And our infrastructure can’t handle the growth.”
Hudson said new intersections, exits and extended turn lanes are needed on roads like Hope Ferry and Calks Ferry.
“We’re approaching half a million in population, and we have the same intersections we had 30 years ago,” he said.
Homebuilders agree something needs to be done to decrease road congestion but question lot limits as the solution.
“We already have the traffic,” said Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina. “It doesn’t really resolve what the problems are.”
His organization says the same number of new homes will be needed, but in that popular area of the county, more land will be required to fit them in — accompanied by more public services.
“We may be proposing a solution that goes the other way,” said Andy White, a developer who also chairs the county planning commission.
"It's a fact; it's happening other places," Brian Clifton, a homebuilder who sits on the commission, said citing Greenville as an example.
What White, Clifton and others say could happen instead is a chilling effect on smaller, lower maintenance and more affordable properties that largely appeal to first-time homebuyers and seniors.
Because land prices won't be any less, builders will need to build larger homes to hit price points that will cover their costs.
"I don't believe this makes sense for Lexington County now," White said. "We have too many different types of families who want to live here."
Having developed in both the Midlands and Lowcountry, Kevin Steelman, said he has seen the different ways counties have attempted to deal with their growth.
"One thing it's going to do here is prevent having as much diversity of product," he said, but because townhomes and duplexes are exempt from the regulation, he thinks those still will fill the growing national trend toward smaller housing.
"It's practical, in that sense," he said.
Steelman points to markets like Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta and Greenville where a lot of townhomes are popular. Fewer townhomes historically have been built in the Columbia area because affordability hasn't made it a necessity, but he sees that changing into the future.
Clifton believes, because the ordinance only places limits on single-family properties, that apartment buildings are going to pop up to fill that need. And the traffic issues will continue.
Most neighborhoods being built in the area already meet the new requirements.
On the other hand, had the area's popular Meadowview or Pleasant Springs neighborhoods been proposed now, neither would comply with the ordinance.
The ordinance can still be amended, and, with that in mind, the planning commission plans to recommend tweaks that could allow some loopholes, perhaps allowing higher density in exchange for building homes with a smaller number of bedrooms, and therefore drivers.
"The ordinance needs some work, do we all agree?" White asked, answered by the nodding heads of the other eight commissioners.