Greenville County has struggled to control the sprawl of new subdivisions into our rural communities. I should know, as I represent rural citizens in three separate subdivision appeals. The county’s inconsistent and uncertain method for regulating rural subdivisions has created a system of land planning by litigation, which is a losing proposition for all involved, especially including the taxpayers who foot the bill. Thankfully, County Council now has a clear and immediate opportunity to correct this failed system.
There is a proposed ordinance before Greenville County Council that would establish unequivocal minimum lot sizes for new subdivisions in unzoned parts of the county. The clarity provided by this new ordinance would put an end to inefficient subdivision litigation and would ease the massive burden created under the current system, wherein rural communities and developers must repeatedly mobilize before the Planning Commission to win discretionary votes.
Greenville County residents have a long history of understandable skepticism toward government efforts to regulate private property. If you are one of these skeptical folks, here is some good news for you: The proposed ordinance is not a bureaucratic creation but rather is pulled directly from the 2020 Comprehensive Plan developed by the citizens of Greenville County. Over a period of nearly a year, hundreds of residents and stakeholder groups of every type submitted input into what eventually became the county’s 175-page vision for tailoring future development to each unique section of our county. The plan goes so far as to specify minimum lot sizes for each part of the county, with densely packed urban lots dissipating into larger farms and residential tracts in our most rural areas.
The one and only thing that the proposed ordinance does is give binding legal force to these lot sizes that were determined through the painstaking comprehensive planning process. In other words, the lot sizes contained in the proposed ordinance are something that we as Greenville County residents have already determined to reflect sound policy.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that certain moneyed interests in Greenville County don’t want to see any limitations on developers. These interests have already successfully muddied the waters in relation to the proposed ordinance by spreading false narratives that are merely a mask for a rabidly pro-development agenda. For example, the idea that this proposed ordinance will prevent divisions of property among family is a red herring. Family subdivisions are treated differently from profit-seeking developments under the county’s land development regulations, and the same can absolutely be true of this ordinance. Further, the idea that this ordinance will devalue your rural property is only true if you own a large tract that you’d like to convert into a high density subdivision. For the remaining 99.9% of our rural residents, property values are likely to benefit from the protection of open space, scenic views and rural amenities that actually attract people to these parts of the county.
For decades in this county, the dreaded “z-word” has been used as a tool by politicians and developers to scare ordinary citizens away from sensible land planning. That scary “zoning” word has already been on the lips of the opponents to the proposed ordinance, in the hopes that falsely branding the ordinance will make it go away.
First of all, by indisputable legal definition, the establishment of minimum lot sizes does not constitute zoning under South Carolina law. Indeed, Greenville County already has minimum lot sizes for unzoned subdivisions — it’s just that the existing minimums don’t match the Comprehensive Plan. Second, there is a significant practical difference between imposing a comprehensive zoning system on our rural communities and simply specifying a minimum lot size for developers to meet in those communities. Unfortunately, though, false narratives like this have taken hold among some on County Council.
Whether or not you care about stopping sprawl and protecting rural communities, you should care that Greenville County just made a major investment of taxpayer money and staff time in the creation of a Comprehensive Plan, and County Council unanimously approved the content of that plan. Some of those same council members now balk at the first opportunity to enact that content. Please join me in letting County Council know that it cannot squander the major investment of time and money in the plan by now failing to act to control rural subdivisions.
Michael Corley is Upstate director for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.