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At a crossroads: SC border communities take action to keep pace with growth

The area around the S.C. Highway 521 and S.C. Highway 160 intersection in Indian Land is one of three areas in the panhandle that Lancaster County wants to see developed into a walkable urban neighborhood.  The county’s new zoning ordinance will encourage more mixed-use development in the panhandle, and at a higher density than what has been permitted in the past. Photo by Eric Dinkins

The area around the S.C. Highway 521 and S.C. Highway 160 intersection in Indian Land is one of three areas in the panhandle that Lancaster County wants to see developed into a walkable urban neighborhood. The county’s new zoning ordinance will encourage more mixed-use development in the panhandle, and at a higher density than what has been permitted in the past. Photo by Eric Dinkins

Charlotte’s two neighboring South Carolina counties are facing a surge of residential development that’s putting a strain on roads and public services.

In preparation for future growth, both York and Lancaster counties are updating their development standards and looking for new ways to ensure that their fastest growing areas continue to attract development while being prepared to accommodate the additional traffic and demand for services.

Lancaster and York were two of the fastest growing counties in South Carolina between 2013 and 2014. Lancaster County was ranked No. 1 in the state, with a population growth rate of 3.3 percent, and York was ranked fourth with a growth rate of 2.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The recent population hike has continued to stimulatd residential and commercial development in the northern parts of both counties, especially in the Indian Land and Lake Wylie areas.

In Lancaster County’s panhandle north of S.C. Highway 5, 18,000 single-family and multifamily residences have been approved in the past 15 years, although nearly 7,500 of those approved have yet to be built, according to Penelope G. Karagounis, the county’s planning director.

Due to the number of homes slated for delivery, the County Council recently approved a nine-month moratorium, until March 8, on all rezoning applications for properties north of S.C. Highway 5. The Planning Department proposed the moratorium so it could focus on rewriting the county’s zoning ordinance, which will encourage denser, mixed-use development and more housing options in the panhandle.

The number of housing units in the Lake Wylie area increased to more than 4,000 from about 1,600 between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As of February, more than 3,300 homes and apartments already approved by the county have not yet been built in the area, according to Audra Miller, director of York County’s Planning and Development Services Department.

But more homes equals more traffic and more money necessary for public infrastructure and services.

York County is focused on getting cars in and out of the Lake Wylie area faster, specifically north of S.C. Highway 161 and east of S.C. Highway 49/274 up to the North Carolina border.

Lancaster County is considering restructuring existing fees it collects to channel funds into the panhandle and improve its public services there.


More growth, more service

One way Lancaster County is looking to alleviate public service expenses is by taking up impact fees.

The county currently collects fees through project-specific agreements that developers enter into with the county, but typically only for big, high-density projects.

Impact fees, on the other hand, can be structured so that all development projects help pay for public services and infrastructure improvements.

And, whereas the county’s existing fee structure limits development agreement funds to be used only for schools and public safety, such as fire and police, impact fees could be used for road improvements, parks, libraries and public safety — but not for schools.

“Impact fees are not the perfect solution; it’s just another tool in the toolbox for council to help make growth pay for growth,” said Steve Willis, county administrator.

It’s against state law to use impact fees for schools, and the existing fees for schools included in development agreements usually call for $500 per home in a single-family development. But Willis said that even for large projects, that fee doesn’t amount to much funding.

“You’re not building schools with that (money),” he said.

Impact fees also can vary in different parts of the county. Willis said, for example, that Indian Land would require more money to pay for public services and infrastructure because more people live there, so fees in that area would likely be higher.

Impact fees can be pinned on commercial properties as well, which is another reason the county is considering changing its fee structure. There are currently no development agreements for commercial projects in the county, according to Willis.

The County Council recently approved including the cost of an impact fee study in the county’s budget for fiscal year 2016 as part of the zoning ordinance rewrite.

In the Lake Wylie area, roads are the biggest concern, followed closely by fire services, said York County Councilman Bruce Henderson, who represents the district that includes Lake Wylie.

David Hooper, an administrator at the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study (RFATS), the metropolitan planning organization for northern York and Lancaster Counties, said road congestion around Lake Wylie is a result of commuters having only two ways to get to Charlotte and Rock Hill. He said drivers either have to cross the Buster Boyd Bridge or take S.C. Highway 274 south to Celenese Road and go around the lake.

“With basically two ways there, if one area gets congested it typically diverts traffic to the other area and vice versa,” Hooper said.

The York County Pennies for Progress program, which helps fund county road projects, and RFATS both have ongoing projects to address some of the immediate traffic concerns in the Lake Wylie area, but County Council members have said they need to start thinking about long-term solutions.

The council recently turned down a rezoning request for a 250-lot single-family subdivision on 179 acres on S.C. Highway 274, west of its intersection with Pole Branch Road, citing existing congestion in the area.

Henderson said Lake Wylie residents need another way to cross over the lake into North Carolina.

“We’ve got to have something different than just the Buster Boyd Bridge,” he said. “It’s either expanding the Buster Boyd Bridge or possibly a different bridge at another location to relieve the traffic from there.”

But Henderson said funding a large-scale project, such as another bridge, isn’t possible in the near future because the economy is still rebounding from the recession. He said it’s likely to be five to 10 years before the county pursues it.

For now, road improvements in the Lake Wylie area are focused on S.C. Highway 274.

RFATS recently did a traffic analysis at the S.C. Highway 274 and S.C. Highway 49/557 intersection. In the analysis, RFATS rated all 33 route options at the intersection from A, being the best, to F, the worst. The majority of the routes were rated F, or “severely congested.” Hooper said the timing of the traffic lights was going to be improved to help traffic move more efficiently.

Another strained intersection is further north at S.C. Highway 274 and Pole Branch Road, which is near the site the council voted against rezoning.

Funded by the county’s Pennies for Progress program, both S.C. Highway 274 and Pole Branch Road are going to be widened in the next few years. The stretch of S.C. Highway 274 from S.C. Highway 49/557 up to Pole Branch Road is going to be widened from two to five lanes, and Pole Branch Road from S.C. Highway 274 to the North Carolina line is going to be widened from two to three lanes.

The county will begin accepting bids for the $25.8 million project in the fall, and construction is scheduled to be completed in summer 2019.

Hooper said the road-widening project should “result in an appreciable improvement,” in terms of traffic.


Scaled-back vision

York County is revising its zoning ordinance and updating its comprehensive land-use plan in response to the rapid growth around Lake Wylie.

Improving the county’s traffic impact analysis requirements, requiring more street connections between developments and allowing multifamily only in certain zoning districts are all being considered in order to cut down on traffic.

Henderson said his No. 1 priority for the revised zoning ordinance is limiting in the future the high-density single-family development that has been built recently near the lake.

“Overall, I think we’re in a consensus as far as lessening the density in developments in general, but certainly within a mile of the lake,” he said regarding the County Council’s stance on how the Lake Wylie community should develop.

To address the council’s concern, planning Director Miller said, the new zoning ordinance may determine the number of homes that can be built based solely on the land being developed, and exclude land that will be left alone, such as natural open space or undevelopable areas.

Miller said the biggest question at this point in its zoning ordinance revision process was whether or not that regulation would apply to only certain areas, such as Lake Wylie, or the whole county.

One option the county is exploring is a 1-mile buffer that would extend west from the shore of Lake Wylie, in which a net-density rule would apply. She said the county is also considering density caps and bigger lot sizes to reduce density.

Miller said in an email that – based on public input and council comments – the “biggest challenge is balancing growth and development with the timing of infrastructure improvements.”

The county has encouraged community input on proposed changes to the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan, and several community meetings have been held since March.

Public comments compiled by Charlotte-based LandDesign, which the county hired late last year to update its comprehensive land-use plan, indicate that residents also support lessening density around Lake Wylie. They also want to see more recreation options and amenities, such as greenways, and better access to the lake.

Revisions to the zoning ordinance are scheduled to be presented to the County Council by August and the comprehensive plan should be completed by September.


Ramped-up vision

Whereas York County plans to scale back development in its fastest-growing area, Lancaster County wants to encourage more dense, mixed-use development similar to what’s being built in Charlotte.

The county adopted a new comprehensive land-use plan in December, and is currently rewriting its zoning ordinance to better reflect its vision for the county.

“We need a new unified development ordinance to reflect the future land-use map that is in the comprehensive plan,” Karagounis said.

The Planning Department plans to present the new zoning ordinance to the council later this year and hopes it will be approved by February.

The new comprehensive land use plan has the panhandle designated for neighborhood mixed-use development, which would allow for higher-density projects that include a variety of uses. Karagounis said Indian Land, unlike the rest of the county, should more resemble Charlotte and attract a younger demographic by offering a variety of housing options.

Of the 18,000 residences that Lancaster County has approved north of S.C. Highway 5, about 15,000 are single-family and 3,000 are multifamily.

“Indian Land doesn’t really have a variation or selection of townhomes and apartments,” Karagounis said.

The land-use map also identifies three smaller areas, or “nodes,” in the northern part of the panhandle that are classified as pedestrian centers, which Karagounis described as walkable urban neighborhoods.

“You need at least 10 to 15 units per acre for a pedestrian center and we don’t have that today,” she said.

The maximum density that the existing zoning ordinance allows is eight units per acre.

Some developers are already looking to bring in the type of development the county hopes to attract in the panhandle. The County’s Planning Commission recently recommended the County Council approve rezoning requests for two projects that include multiple uses.

In May, Two Capital Partners LLC requested a general commercial district be rezoned to a multiple-family district to allow for a class-A apartment community and townhomes on about 39 acres.

Also, Gross Builders requested a rezoning from moderate-density residential to multiple-family district and general commercial to build an apartment community and some commercial space on 54 acres.

Karagounis said the new zoning ordinance will also better dictate commercial zoning classifications, because the existing ordinance is too vague on what it allows to be built, particularly on properties zoned Business 3.

“We need to prioritize the business zoning to kind of make sure that certain types of uses can be separated for each commercial criteria,” she said.

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