Comprehensive plans and why funders should care

[vc_row css_animation=”” row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” angled_section=”no” text_align=”left” background_image_as_pattern=”without_pattern”][vc_column][vc_column_text]Zoning and land use may seem to be outside of the scope of GPP members’ interests.  But it is land use that undergirds affordable housing, transit, access to healthy food, and so much of what is fundamental to many funders’ and nonprofits’ work.  The December 2019 GPP meeting focused on Greenville County and the City of Greenville’s comprehensive planning processes (currently underway) that lay the groundwork for these important activities.

South Carolina law requires that any local government which enacts any zoning regulations prepare a comprehensive plan.  The plans inventory existing conditions, identify needs and goals for the jurisdiction, and develop implementation strategies and time frames (the full presentation with details on the planning process is here).

Greenville County engaged MKSK to lead its planning process, which began a year ago. Sarah Holt, director of planning for Greenville County, and Tee Coker with MKSK presented. They reported that the planning process has included a statistically valid telephone survey with residents, 20 community meetings with more than 1,000 attendees providing comments with additional participation online, and detailed scenario planning and data analysis.

Planners project that the county will add 220,000 residents and 108,000 jobs by 2040.  This will most certainly create demands on infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer, waste disposal, first responders, schools, cultural institutions, and parks.

At our current land use patterns, this population growth would also almost double the urbanized area, taking our developed land from 270 square miles to 476 square miles.  Interestingly, this more sprawled development pattern is a more recent phenomenon.  Prior to 1990, when we had 142 square miles of developed land, we had higher density with 2,250 residents per square mile.  But now, our density has dropped to 1,800 residents per square mile, meaning we are living farther apart from each other and using more land per household.

Why does this matter to GPP members?  As residents live farther from jobs, schools, retail, health care, and other opportunities and services, those with the lowest incomes and wealth will likely need to live farthest away to afford housing.  This means that their transportation costs will go up, but such sprawled development will also make it harder for public transit or other transportation services to efficiently reach them.  It also means that we’ll lose farmland for local food, school transportation costs could go up, and planning for industrial sites will be more critical.

To accommodate this growth, planners tested a number of scenarios: 1) continuing current land use trends (adding 206 sq. mi. development), 2) focusing growth in existing transportation corridors and maximizing areas where infrastructure already exists (adding 48 sq. mi. development), or 3) focusing almost exclusively on infill (so only 17 sq. mi. new land development).

Based on development trends, stakeholder input, community preferences, existing community plans, and critical infrastructure, planners recommend the second scenario of focused growth.  To illustrate how this scenario might look once implemented, MKSK commissioned conceptual drawings of existing places in Greenville County developed in a way that focuses growth.  They illustrate rural crossroads and villages with denser but quaint development which could include amenities that local residents want, suburban infill bringing more activity to large and underutilized surface parking lots, and making more use of existing transportation corridors such as Poinsett Highway.

The seven recommendations in the Plan Greenville County comprehensive plan work together to allow for focused growth to accommodate new residents and jobs:

  1. Follow this land use plan.  Previous plans have made good recommendations, but they were not implemented and development proceeded without their guidance and direction.
  2. Work toward a unified sewer system.  Sanitary sewer service is currently provided by 12 different operators, which include ReWa, Metro Connects, and small special purpose districts, and development is directly connected to sewer.  Both the availability of sewer along with available capacity of sewer are critical.  If these entities aren’t unified or coordinated in some way, it will be difficult for land development and the other recommendations to be implemented successfully.
  3. Identify and prepare employment centers.  To accommodate the new jobs we expect to have, the county should identify and protect commercial and industrial sites so they don’t become developed in other ways.
  4. Increase workforce housing.  The median income is $55,000, and the plan stresses that the county should use all options to increase housing for those who fall below this, which can include denser housing that’s cheaper to develop and closer to jobs or incentives for development.
  5. Create and expand traditional neighborhoods, meaning ones that are walkable with amenities and jobs available within them.
  6. Address needed transportation network improvements, including funding maintenance, addressing known design challenges (e.g. numerous curb cuts or lack of sidewalks), and greatly expanding public transit.
  7. Improve interjurisdictional communication.  As the Greenville News puts it, “With dozens of special purpose districts, six cities and the state’s largest school district residing in Greenville County, the comp plan says the county should focus on improving coordination and sharing information ‘particularly in terms of consistent development standards, development at city edges, transportation improvements, increasing workforce housing, and service provision.’”

The City of Greenville’s comprehensive plan is currently in progress with an expected completion of late 2020.  Courtney Powell and Shannon Lavrin with the City’s planning department joined the meeting as well to provide an update.  It has a 41-member citizen committee informing the work, which is led by the planning firm czb (which, you may recall, also led the City and County affordable housing studies a few years ago).  The process has included several stakeholder surveys, kitchen table conversations led by committee members, public open houses, and data analysis by planning staff and the consultant.  Courtney and Shannon shared that they are working to coordinate with the County on their efforts. City and County staff have scheduled monthly meetings to coordinate on planning activities.

Presenters encouraged attendees to engage in the comprehensive planning processes, which can include attending council and planning commission meetings, calling council members, and helping to educate peers and colleagues about why the recommendations are important.  Upstate Forever has a newsletter on the process for which folks can sign up.  The City also has a website and newsletter sign up at

Eleanor Dunlap, Chief Impact Officer with the Graham Foundation and board member of the Greenville Housing Fund who moderated the Q&A, emphasized to attendees that effective planning by the cities and county allows us to make the most effective use of our philanthropic dollars.  Our participation and voice in the process helps us represent the community’s interest in the development of our community.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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