Fort Mill, Tega Cay officials cast wary eye on building freeze

New homes under construction near Lake Wylie off Allison Creek Road in the Palm Tree Cove development.
New homes under construction near Lake Wylie off Allison Creek Road in the Palm Tree Cove development. aburriss@heraldonline.com

While York County Council hammers out the details of a proposed building freeze for the high-growth areas of Lake Wylie and unincorporated Fort Mill, local officials and residents have mixed views on the initiative.

Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage said she met with York County Councilman Michael Johnson (R-Tega Cay), who introduced the proposal at a county council meeting last week, to get a better handle on the machinations and implications.

“I thought it was important that he did some explaining on what the council’s intent was.”

Savage, a lifelong Fort Mill resident, said she recognizes why residents troubled by the area’s seemingly endless growth would be eager to get behind a moratorium.

“I do think it’s easy to feel the pain of the growth, the congestion, the additional schools needed – all those things people talk about – that it’s not so easy to recognize how it occurred,” she said. “It happened so quickly.”

A nine-year town council veteran before winning the mayor’s seat last fall, Savage said Fort Mill actually explored options for controlling growth after the town doubled its physical size with a major annexation about eight years ago.

“Discussions of a moratorium are not new to my council,” Savage said. “We even at one time had someone from Mt. Pleasant come and talk about their own moratorium, the impacts from it and benefits from it and we have discussed it. You have to look at the options and all the options are always on the table.”

One thing Savage wouldn’t do is predict if a majority of Fort Mill Town Council members would vote to go down that road.

“I would be out of line to speak for them,” she said. “I don’t know what the leaning of Council would be.”

A Realtor by trade, Savage insists her profession would not factor into her decision if Council does eventually vote on a building freeze.

“I work really hard when I have the town hat on,” Savage said. She insisted that she would always recuse herself from any vote that posed a conflict of interest.

Others in her field offered their opinions.

Nick Kremydas, CEO of the S.C. Association of Realtors, said his group’s position is building moratoriums don’t work and end up doing more harm than good.

“Concerns over growth and development are understandable and reasonable and local governments should be prepared and have the foresight to prepare for growth, but moratoriums typically are not just an overreaction to growth, but bad policy that will harm the very residents they are trying to protect,” he said.

Limiting the inventory of homes in a real estate market will cause prices to climb and make it more difficult for existing homeowners who want to sell, Kremydas said. He said a recent survey showed the median price of a home in York County rose by 5 percent in the past year to more than $150,000 while the inventory dropped by 20 percent without any growth control measures in place.

“When you limit the supply, prices are going to climb,” Kremydas said.

“Our concern is, a moratorium only ensures further scarcity in the market and puts the American dream of home ownership out of reach for more people. We’re concerned it could have a chilling effect on the local economy.”

Fort Mill Town Councilman Larry Huntley said he needs to know more about the county’s proposal before forming an opinion and seemed skeptical that a building freeze can effectively control growth inside town limits.

“Before one could make a reasonable comment, we must first see what the actual proposal would be,” he wrote in an email.

“Would it be all construction, or just residential, for what length of time would the freeze be in place? Proposing is one of thing, but actually getting something in place is a totally different ball game. What has been the result of other areas that have instituted a construction freeze? Would it be just for Bethel and Fort Mill townships? If so, what would prevent a developer from either going to the other side of the river or across Sugar Creek with a development and leaving us with the same problems but none of the tax base.”

Huntley used Baxter Village, just outside town limits, as an example.

“Before Baxter was built, Fort Mill had an informal freeze in place by not supplying the area with water and sewer with the thought that this would prevent any development in the area,” he wrote.

“Now, years later, Baxter and all the commercial development sets right across the interstate and there is not one less car on the road, not one less student in the school system.”

In Tega Cay: Wait and see

David O’Neal, elected to Tega Cay City Council last fall, pitched voters on the idea of curbing new development. He’s looked into a freeze or moratorium for Tega Cay, too.

“I’ve tried it,” he said. “I’ve asked for a freeze at the city level. The Council has shot me down on that. They don’t want to do it.”

O’Neal points to the Feb. 16 meeting, when a room full of residents turned out with concerns about Windhaven, a subdivision up for annexation that could add 600 homes to Tega Cay. The Windhaven decision was tabled until March. O’Neal said he hopes Council members recall those residents as the weeks pass.

“I’m hoping that it doesn’t change anybody’s mind,” he said.

Until he sees specifics on the county freeze, O’Neal said it’s “just hearsay” and impossible to evaluate. Even if it passes and new construction permits come to a screeching halt, O’Neal said the 12,000 homes already approved in the area will continue.

“I don’t really see how it will make that much of a difference,” he said. “There’s so much stuff that’s already in the works.”

A freeze could change one argument that often surfaces when Fort Mill or Tega Cay looks to annex planned residential property. A reason given for annexation is developers can put as many or more residential units in the unincorporated area regardless, so the municipalities need to annex to have some control on what would be built.

If the county institutes a freeze, it could mean less incentive to annex or more negotiating power from the municipalities.

“That’s a possibility,” O’Neal said.

“We are very interested to see how it plays out,” said Charlie Funderburk, city manager for Tega Cay. Like Huntley in neighboring Fort Mill, Funderburk is waiting for details.

“At this point, no one seems to know what they are even considering, so to have an opinion about it at this point would probably be premature,” he said.

Tega Cay doesn’t have much room left to grow due to county development near the borders, Funderburk said. The exception is Windhaven, a project under annexation consideration north of Gold Hill Road that would bring 600 homes.

Funderburk has heard feedback within his community, including some “people that are very troubled” by what they’ve heard about the plan. But until something is set, the city can’t have a position.

“We have not received a definitive answer as to what that is,” Funderburk said. “Once we know, we’ll have discussions with City Council regarding any potential ramifications on the city their decision may have.”

Fire Dept. keeps up

One official who seems unperturbed either way is David Jennings, chief at the Flint Hill Fire Department, which covers much of the area a potential freeze would affect. Keeping up with a growing community is nothing new for his group.

“We’re kind of in the highest growth area in York County,” Jennings said. “Ever since the ‘70s when Carowinds and Heritage USA came in, we’ve been working like crazy to stay ahead of the growth curve. And I feel like we are staying ahead.”

Flint Hill responded to more than 1,300 calls last year. The once all-volunteer station is now staffed half-and-half with paid firefighters. The 10 paid personnel are funded through a special tax district, something growing in popularity in high-growth areas in recent years.

The tax district creates a perspective for Jennings similar to what municipalities face. If new homes and businesses come in, that means more people to serve, but it also means more people paying for the service. Commercial brings in much more than residential, but both contribute.

Personally “torn” on the idea, with concerns about traffic and schools but also property rights, Jennings understands there are issues to consider. As for his group’s ability to keep pace, it shouldn’t be a deciding factor for or against the freeze.

“Whether they do or not, that’s a political decision,” Jennings said.

Fort Mill Township resident Sharon Moore Godfrey said she thinks a moratorium is overdue.

“The traffic has impacted the roads, commercially and personally,” she said via Facebook message.

“(There is) not enough thoroughfare to get through or around Fort Mill. Couples with two or more children have impacted our schools to (cause) the building of more schools to accommodate (the reason) they are moving to the area. It’s trickled down to taxpayers to pay for the increases to school bonds and roads. We can’t shoulder this every year,” she wrote.

Godfrey said she and her neighbors “all say ‘no more!’ ” and blames longtime landowners and developers “cutting up the town” for the congestion.

“It’s the landowners getting the heck out of Dodge with their family money and the developers cutting up the land to make all the out-of-towners happy, but not being responsible.”