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Fort Mill’s rapid growth concerns residents, leaders

Residents wary of runaway residential growth are starting to speak up, and elected officials appear to be listening.

Despite the recession, which put the brakes on homebuilding for a couple of years starting in 2008, developers have again mashed the accelerator. Since 2012, building permit requests have soared to near prerecession levels. In the town of Fort Mill alone, approximately 200 new homes a year are built, with thousands more either in construction or planning stages. Additionally, in the part of Fort Mill under York County jurisdiction and the city of Tega Cay, thousands more are coming.

But residents are saying “enough,” angered over construction’s impact on local roads and schools.

In July, residents attended a Fort Mill meeting to oppose a 150-townhome community near the Kimbrell Crossing, Ardrey Acres and Savannah Place subdivisions. The town’s planning commission had recommended by a vote of 4-3 to limit builders to 100 townhomes. But some residents, citing a traffic study that says main corridor Doby’s Bridge Road is 10 percent over capacity, are concerned that’s still too many.

“No area can stand that kind of growth,” resident Tom Nalley, said. “This will completely change the character of our neighborhood.”

Nalley said local schools are already overcrowded. Doby’s Bridge Elementary School will open Aug. 18, and residents are holding their breath over the affect on traffic.

“We’d like to urge that this not go through,” Nalley said.

Kimbrell Road resident Anna Brandl said residents don’t want to see more homes in the area.

“Don’t ruin it on us,” she told Fort Mill Town Council members.

Officials share views

At a recent State of the Community Breakfast sponsored by the York County Chamber of Commerce, Fort Mill Schools Superintendent Chuck Epps floated the idea that the school district might have to hold another referendum to ask voters to approve financing for a third high school sooner than anticipated. Besides Doby’s Bridge Elementary School, one other new school is opening Aug. 18, a third is expected to open next year and the two existing high schools will be expanded.

If unchecked growth has some residents worked up, they’re not alone. Elected officials seem to agree that residential development shouldn’t continue at the current pace. But how to regulate it has them vexed.

Whatever the solution is, they say, it would have to revolve around a united front. While some residents may think a moratorium on building permits and rezonings is the golden hammer to keep overdevelopment at bay, it’s just not that simple, according to officials.

“We can do that. But if it’s not in conjunction with the county and the city of Tega Cay, it’s meaningless,” Fort Mill Town Councilman Tom Adams said.

“Most of what we do is through annexation, because if we don’t annex (a planned subdivision) in, it will be built anyway, those residents will end up using our recreation facilities anyway and our residents already in the town don’t get the benefit of the tax revenue. It wouldn’t be smart for us to do that,” Adams said.

He also points out that new homes are going to continue to affect the school district – whether they are annexed into town limits or remain a part of unincorporated Fort Mill.

Adams said he understands residents’ concerns over growthand would be willing to discuss the possibility of a moratorium with York County and Tega Cay officials – but in the context of examining all possible solutions and working together.

“I certainly would welcome the opportunity for us to all get together and hash it out,” he said.

Other elected officials agree growth should be tempered.

“We got to get a handle on growth,” said York County Councilman Chad Williams, who represents District 7, which encompasses part of Fort Mill.

“There has to be a whole lot more effort to ignite the idea of a moratorium, if that’s the answer. But if you do a countywide moratorium, it wouldn’t do any good if the others don’t do it as well,” he said.

“We all know what’s going on in Fort Mill, and I’m not sure if a moratorium is the answer. But I’m sure glad people are talking about it.”

Williams agreed with Adams and said communication among all the municipalities is key, as well as exploring all options before settling on one.

“We have to be open-minded enough to consider everything,” he said. We have to come up with some tools so we don’t just approve every subdivision. If we aren’t careful, we’re going to just run out of land to develop – so we need to get ahead that.”

Fellow York County Councilman Michael Johnson, who represents Tega Cay and part of Fort Mill, said it took all of his first two-year term and part of the second to get a handle on zoning and development, but now he’s passionate about it. Johnson pointed to a decision by the council that he spearheaded earlier this year to deny a rezoning request that would have added more townhomes to a planned subdivision off Highway 160 near Gold Hill Road.

The developer, in later talks with Tega Cay about possible annexation into the city, ran into resistance there, too, because Tega Cay wasn’t willing to allow more homes than the county would. It’s that type of unity, Johnson believes, that’s needed to manage growth and assuage residents’ fears that the small town life they cherish could become extinct.

“We are moving in that direction, slowly,” Johnson said.

Fort Mill, Adams said, is already trying to look at the big picture and anticipate residents’ complaints about development. For example, he said the town, in a development agreement 900 new homes in the vicinity of Pleasant and Vista roads, required that the new homes be phased in with the completion of road projects, including a new Interstate 77/Gold Hill Road interchange.

All together, now

Everyone in a position to affect growth needs to be on the same page, Johnson reiterated.

“I would encourage Fort Mill and Tega Cay and the county to sit down, period, regardless of whether we’re talking about a possible moratorium or talking about what we want this area to look like in 15 or 20 years. Let’s create guidelines for growth and say we’re going to grow, but in a way that makes sense,” Johnson said.

“All these entities are doing 15 and 20-year long-range plans, but no one knows what anyone else is talking about. Certainly Fort Mill people don’t know what Tega Cay is doing and (vice versa). It’s hard to go out and randomly meet people (from different cities). So if we get to know each other, then you can sit down and maybe have honest discussions with each other. The whole idea is getting the ball rolling.”

Johnson’s voice rose while talking about trying to manage growth at a time when developers enjoy a hefty return on investment, especially when clustering as many homes as they can on a parcel of land.

“We have to start saying to these guys, ‘What you going to do to make our community better? What are you giving back?’ No one wants to live in a community where there’s no plan, no vision for the future. The result is what you see everyone complaining about.”

Johnson grew even louder while talking about another consequence of unrestrained residential growth – access to water.

“I can envision a day in three or four years in the future when Charlotte announces it’s not going to return water to the Catawba River Basin. What then?” he said.

Tega Cay City Councilwoman Jennifer Stalford said she also welcomes her city being one of the tips on a three-headed spear to ward off residential creep.

“Growth is going to continue, and I’d rather we control the way it happens rather than feeling behind the curve,” she said. “When organizations work together, you can create timelines and better work together to figure it out.”

Like Johnson, she pointed to the denial of rezoning for the townhome plan off Gold Hill Road as an example of what all the local municipalities can work toward.

“It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” she said. “The county said, ‘Hey, too high a density,’ and we felt the same way. Look, we know something is going to go on the piece of property, but you have to be smart about it.”

Fort Mill Times reporter John Marks and freelance reporter Amanda Harris contributed to this story.