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Lexington County home density limits expanded to curb future traffic, growth issues

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Lexington housing

Like the majority of new housing developments in Lexington County, the Dunhill neighborhood along Corley Mill Road, at about three homes per acre, fits within new density limits for the high-growth area between Lake Murray and the city of Lexington. File/Jessica Holdman/Staff

LEXINGTON — After passing limits in an effort to curb traffic, the fastest-growing county in the Midlands has expanded those restrictions on the number of homes per acre it allows countywide.

The restrictions started last year in the expanding and largely affluent neighborhoods rising between the city of Lexington and Lake Murray. Lexington County Council then extended it this year beyond those original boundaries, holding homes to four per acre in all future proposed subdivisions. Multifamily housing projects are exempt.

Homebuilders have criticized the initial ordinance since it was first implemented last year, saying similar actions have backfired elsewhere in the state.

“Nobody wants to stop growth; we want to have smart growth,” said County Councilman Darrel Hudson, when he introduced the original measure that mostly affected the district he represents.

But council believes the traffic and other growth issues were created by existing development standards, said Councilwoman Erin Long Bergeson, who heads up the council's Planning Committee. So they voted in an effort to prevent troubles from happening elsewhere.

"Why leave the problem creators in place for parts of the county not developed yet?" Bergeson said, adding that the council would just find itself constantly backtracking to address issues as growth spreads to other areas.

Bergeson said homebuilders have argued this would take up more land.

The council's message, she said: "That’s OK with us."

Lexington County's population grew by 1.5 percent in 2019, faster than the state's growth rate of 1.3 percent and the .4 percent growth next door in Richland County, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.

Homebuilders say a high-performing school district continues to bring more people into the neighborhoods around the county's northeast corner, and Lake Murray has become a destination for many in the Midlands.

According to estimates, the county is expecting 20 percent more population expansion over the next seven or eight years.

“Lexington County is exploding and has been exploding for years,” Hudson said when the original ordinance was passed. “And our infrastructure can’t handle the growth.”

Most neighborhoods being built already meet the new requirements.

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On the other hand, had the area's popular Meadowview or Pleasant Springs neighborhoods around Lake Murray been proposed now, neither would comply with the ordinance.

Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina, also argues that limiting home numbers dampens increased retail and the accompanying tax revenues county leaders say they want. This is because most retail development is centered around denser population bases. 

The homebuilders agree something needs to be done to decrease congestion and supported efforts, abandoned by council amid the coronavirus pandemic, for a 1-cent sales tax to raise money for roads. But the industry has questioned lot limits as the solution.

“We already have the traffic,” McLeod said when the original ordinance passed. “It doesn’t really resolve what the problems are.”

His organization has said what 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.

And the spreading out of development will be accompanied by more public services.

Bergeson said maintenance costs of more infrastructure were discussed, as more road miles would also mean more emergency service needs, as well as increased repaving costs in the future.

"But the problems we have had due to intense development are worse," she said.

Giving, as an example, the roughly $90 million in liabilities the county faces due to stormwater runoff from development.

"We can deal with roads," she said.

Other considerations in the decision included reduced risk of fire spread and increased livability with more room between neighbors.

Meanwhile, the city of Cayce has lifted the temporary moratorium it put on large housing developments while it considered plans for handling its own growth.

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