Before too long, more than a million people will live in the Charleston metro area. It’s likely to be a decade or more before the region crosses that population threshold. But we need to start thinking of ourselves as a mid-size city sooner rather than later.
Because those people are coming.
On Wednesday, reporter David Slade laid out the stark numbers. At least 105,000 homes have been permitted in the tri-county area. That means that even if local governments shut the doors to any new developments, there are enough residences already in the pipeline to house a quarter of a million people or more.
The number in and of itself shouldn’t scare anyone. After all, lots of cities much larger than Charleston function well with huge populations and still offer a high quality of life. But our region’s record on effectively managing growth is disappointing.
It’s a tired trope to say that infrastructure hasn’t kept up with development. But it’s true. And while local officials bear the blame for putting off needed improvements, it’s not entirely their fault. Roads simply take a long time to build.
The average timeline to plan, permit and build a new road can be about 10 years. For environmentally sensitive projects, it can take even longer.
Of course, even if we were able to build all of the infrastructure needed to accommodate another 250,000 or so residents, paying for it in the long-term could be a challenge. In some cases, developers have chipped in millions to build needed roads and schools, for example, but those amenities are now the responsibility of taxpayers — in perpetuity.
Generally, single-family homes are a money loser for local governments. They consume more in infrastructure and services than they pay for in property taxes. In other words, building 105,000 new homes without adding lots of new businesses and industry would be disastrous.
The Charleston area’s tremendous growth has helped keep money rolling in even when development patterns aren’t particularly sustainable long-term, but we shouldn’t count on permanent expansion to make up for poor fiscal planning.
The most troubling thing, however, about the 105,000 homes permitted for the Charleston area is just how far away everything is.
With only a handful of exceptions, every large development planned for the area is 15 miles or more outside of the urban core. Even if traffic were to magically disappear, those residents would face long commutes. And they’re going to have to commute — in cars — because there are precious few other options in the works.
A huge increase in housing at the fringes of the metro area represents a failure on the part of local governments to block sprawl and concentrate growth in the parts of the region that can best handle it. But with permits already in place, the best way to mitigate an impending disaster is to treat new developments like self-contained “towns” that minimize the frequency and distance of car trips.
What worked when Charleston was a small town surrounded by rural hamlets won’t work anymore. Really, it hasn’t for decades. But soon, the region will be home to more than a million people. Now is the time to start thinking and acting like a mid-size city.