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Commentary: How to fix Greenville's flawed but only check on sprawling development

Bill Holt

Bill Holt

According to the recently adopted Comprehensive Plan for Greenville County, the population of our county grew from 320,000 to 514,000 during the period from 1990 to 2018, and that number is expected to reach 736,000 by 2040. Unsurprisingly, all this growth is driving development sprawl into the rural — and predominantly unzoned —areas of the county, with disturbing economic, social and environmental impacts.

Thankfully, our new Comprehensive Plan recognizes that our “current land development practices pose a threat to the abundance and quality of Greenville County’s natural resources and environment” and outlines a roadmap for preserving the character of our rural areas. The bad news, though, is that we have thus far seen inconsistent implementation of this vision so painstakingly crafted by county staff, County Council, the Planning Commission and the public.

Inconsistent implementation of the new Comprehensive Plan primarily has been the result of inconsistent application of Article 3.1. That provision, passed by County Council in 2018, has served as the only means to protect our unzoned rural lands from completely unrestrained development. The Planning Commission’s application of Article 3.1 has varied widely, with the regulation mostly disregarded over the last year.

Now, County Council is considering a proposal calling for the repeal of Article 3.1 — without any proposed replacement to responsibly guide explosive growth into the rural parts of the county. After hearing from numerous citizens concerned with the sudden potential loss of the only check on development, the council referred the proposal to its Planning and Development Committee, which voted Monday to recommend a full repeal.

In response to these recent events, a coalition including concerned rural citizens, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and Upstate Forever has developed its own proposal for replacing Article 3.1 that addresses the goal of preserving our rural areas. I write today to describe and encourage support for this proposal. Put simply, the coalition’s proposal implements the recommendations of the Comprehensive Plan, thus building upon the considerable time, effort and input invested into its development.

In addition to retaining the requirements that anticipated developments be compatible with the existing infrastructure and environmental conditions on the site, the proposal would establish the “Rural Subdivision Jurisdiction Area” and the “Suburban Subdivision Jurisdiction Area,” which correspond to areas designated in the Comprehensive Plan. Within these jurisdiction areas, subdivisions would be required to conform to the gross densities established in the Comprehensive Plan. Alternatively, developers could design and build “conservation subdivisions,” which allow for more houses but also preserve more green space.

Conservation subdivisions seek to preserve contiguous open space by allowing tighter grouping of houses, so long as at least 50% of the total subdivision tract is set aside. Research has shown that conservation subdivisions are mutually beneficial by producing 1) increased access for residents to open space, 2) reduced infrastructure and engineering costs to the developers by eliminating the need for large tracts to be cleared and graded, and 3) obvious environmental benefits.

As an illustration, a developer building on a 100-acre tract in a Rural Subdivision Jurisdiction Area could build either 50 lots or set aside 50 acres for open space and build 75 lots, assuming all other county regulations are met. By using the second option, half of the tract would be conserved forever as open space. The coalition’s proposal would thus accomplish the goal and the intent of the Comprehensive Plan by 1) preserving the county’s scenic lands, 2) enabling our local farmers to continue to serve this community in economically viable ways by limiting non-agricultural development, and 3) protecting the county’s sensitive and natural environmental features for continued recreation and enjoyment for generations to come.

We live in a county of unparalleled natural beauty and recreational opportunities that are blessings for us citizens who enjoy the vistas of rolling farmlands to the south and the Blue Ridge mountains to the north. These are precisely the attributes that attract tourists and new residents — unless we fail to protect the wonderful asset we have. We must have effective land development regulations that guide sound and responsible growth and preserve the rural character of our undeveloped lands. We must not allow Article 3.1 to be repealed without a sound replacement.

Bill Holt, M.D., is a gastroenterologist in Greenville and a member of the board of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

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