In a race with growth, York County looks at hitting ‘pause’

Heavy midday traffic on Highwaw 160 near Interstate 77 in Fort Mill, Thursday, February 25, 2016. York County is considering a possible new housing moratorium due to growth.
Heavy midday traffic on Highwaw 160 near Interstate 77 in Fort Mill, Thursday, February 25, 2016. York County is considering a possible new housing moratorium due to growth.

Drive down Pleasant Road, Sutton Road or S.C. 160 in Fort Mill, and signs of growth are everywhere: trees scraped clear to expose red dirt, signs trumpeting a half-dozen new subdivisions and traffic on Interstate 77 exit ramps that backs up almost to the highway.

Upstate South Carolina is growing rapidly, and the epicenter of that growth runs along Interstate 77 from Rock Hill to the state line. That growth has accelerated now that South Carolina has aggressively lured companies from Charlotte, such as Lash Group and LPL Financial, which are building new headquarters in Fort Mill.

But that growth comes with frustrations about overloaded roads backed up with heavy traffic and a crowded school system that’s seen its enrollment double in a decade. Now county leaders are considering a new step: hitting the “pause” button.

York County Council member Michael Johnson, a Republican, has asked county staff to draw up plans for a moratorium on new residential building in the unincorporated areas around Fort Mill to give the county some breathing space and time for its infrastructure to catch up.

Growth-related frustrations were evident Thursday at a community forum at a Fort Mill middle school. Residents shared many of the same complaints: Traffic is worse than ever, they said. They moved out of Charlotte to get away from the crowds, but the crowds followed them. They’re not against growth, but roads and schools just can’t handle the onslaught.

“It’s a huge change,” said Erika Andrew, a former New Yorker who moved to Fort Mill in the early 1990s. Back then, Fort Mill felt like “the middle of nowhere,” she said.

“Now, it feels like Long Island,” Andrew said.

Last year, York County had more than 245,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s up 49 percent from 2000, when the county had a population of 164,614.

More growth is on the way. Crescent Communities is building Masons Bend on Sutton Road, which will add 650 houses on 550 acres between I-77 and Lake Wylie. Lincoln Harris and Cato Corp. are planning to redevelop the former Charlotte Knights baseball stadium site near I-77 and Exit 88 with millions of square feet of office space and hundreds of dwellings.

But despite residents’ frustrations and the York County Council bringing up the moratorium, such a halt on building would face stiff opposition. York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said he doesn’t favor a full stop.

“I don’t agree with a moratorium,” he said. “We don’t want to have a government takeover and just totally shut everything down.”

Blackwell, a Republican, said he wants to work with the towns, making the needed road and school upgrades to ensure growth is as smooth as possible.

The York County Council should see a final proposal for a building moratorium in the coming weeks and could debate and vote in April.

School growth ‘hard to manage’

Fort Mill School District Superintendent Chuck Epps said a pause in new housing development would help his district “get a second wind.” The number of students enrolled has doubled from 6,185 during the 2004-05 school year to 13,217 now. Enrollment at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools increased 23 percent during the same period, to 146,140 students.

“The numbers have been accelerating at such a rapid pace it’s been hard to manage,” Epps said of his district. “It puts tremendous pressure on us.”

To deal with the pressure, voters last year approved a $226 million bond issue that will pay for a new middle and high school in the district. One problem: Epps said that with so many developers interested in building around Fort Mill, it’s getting more difficult to find sites to build new schools.

“Going forward, we’re really concerned over the next 10- to 15-year period about diminishing opportunities to buy land,” he said.

Building permits show that while growth has picked up dramatically in York County, it hasn’t yet hit the pace of pre-recession days. In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 3,328 new building permits for residential units were issued. By 2009, in the depths of the real estate crash, that fell by half, to 1,688 new permits.

Last year, the most recent full year of data available, York County issued 2,982 residential building permits, the census showed.

Similar challenges in Charlotte

Charlotte is dealing with many of the same growth-related headaches as York County. Traffic and the capacity of schools keep coming up at the Charlotte City Council’s monthly rezoning hearings, where council members routinely approve projects that will allow hundreds of new houses and apartments.

For example, earlier this month the City Council approved a plan by Grubb Properties to build 450 new apartments on Park Road near Abbey Place. City staff estimated that could more than quadruple daily vehicle trips, from 2,500 under the current zoning to 11,178.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts has also taken to highlighting the impact new developments could have on schools. The Grubb development could push nearby Selwyn Elementary from its current 180 percent capacity to 187 percent, according to staff estimates. A plan to redevelop the aging Colony apartments in SouthPark with 990 new residences, approved in January, could generate 88 more students; Sharon Elementary could go from 146 percent of its capacity to 161 percent, staff estimated.

Roberts said she doesn’t think slamming on the brakes is the answer, however.

“I don’t think our community wants to stop growth or put a moratorium on it,” she said. “What I really want to see happen is a broader conversation.”

Under a 2005 N.C. law, a local government can declare a moratorium on new building for a specific time frame to address a specific problem. A “pause” simply to come up with a new plan for accommodating growth isn’t allowed, according to David Owens, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government.

Roberts sees a need for more coordination with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the county to plan for where to build new facilities. A more powerful joint planning group with all three bodies could help, Roberts said.

Joe Padilla, executive director of the Charlotte-based Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, said he’s heard “no rumblings” about a building moratorium of any kind in Charlotte. But he’s keeping a wary eye on York County: Many of REBIC’s members are homebuilders or developers working there now.

He noted that the area’s housing supply is already tight: The group Metro Study said this month that Charlotte has a 6.6-month supply of homes available, below the 7.2-month historical average. For that reason, Padilla said, stopping construction anywhere could drive up prices.

“What’s really terrifying about the York County proposal is we’re in an environment where there’s not a surplus of supply,” he said. He believes would-be buyers in the moratorium area would just buy in surrounding counties and drive even farther to their jobs in Fort Mill or Charlotte – putting just as much, if not more, strain on the roads.

“The idea that if we stop construction, we can stop the impact on the infrastructure is completely false,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Fort Mill, Andrew said she doesn’t want to block new people who want to move there. But, like most residents who showed up to hear the county’s plans for growth last week, she said something needs to change.

“You don’t want to shut the door behind you,” she said. “But you should grow infrastructure at the same time.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo