Growth in Greenville County

There’s no doubt that Greenville County, South Carolina is growing rapidly. Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the city of Greenville is the fourth fastest growing city in the nation. The ten-county Upstate area has grown 64% since 1990 and is predicted to grow by 300,000 over the next twenty years.

How to plan for this growth in a way that promotes economic vitality but preserves the natural characteristics of our area was the topic of the July 2018 meeting of the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. GPP members were joined by elected officials from the county and the municipalities along with lead executive and planning staff. Attendees considered how community entities like philanthropic funders can support or complement the work of local jurisdictions in planning for smart growth.

Stephen Stansbery, AICP, Vice President with Kimley-Horn, a national planning and design consulting firm, presented on growth in the context of comprehensive planning. Comprehensive plans (or comp plans, for short) are and use plans designed to guide the future actions of a community, which may include how to make decisions on public and private land development proposals, compatibility between various uses of land, management of natural resources and historically significant land and structures, and other infrastructure.

South Carolina law requires local governments to undertake and adopt comp plans every ten years and to update them every five years. South Carolina comp plans must include elements covering population, economic development, natural resources, cultural resources, community facilities, housing element, land use element, transportation, and priority investments. Greenville County and the City of Greenville are both preparing to complete their ten-year comp plans.

Stephen summed up comp plans as the “North Star” to guide communities’ future decisions and to establish policy direction on relevant topics. They are usually led by a local government’s planning staff, sometimes with the help of consultants, and they include research on what we know about the area, technical analysis to outline options, and engaging residents for their perspectives, followed by planning and prioritizing.

Often, communities approach planning with a framework or preferred growth strategy. This could be an orientation toward economic development, a focus on environment and open space or multimodal transportation, interest in boosting housing options, or other points of view. Today, communities are also considering issues of affordability, authenticity, equity, and more. And they are addressing rapidly changing demographics, such as millennials’ and boomers’ shared interest in driving less and living in less space that is closer to their other destinations.

In the end and resulting from input from a wide range of stakeholders and solid data, the resulting plan should prevent and resolve conflict about the community’s future – not create more conflict.
Maurie Lawrence, real estate attorney and legal counsel with the Hughes Development Corporation and board member of Piedmont Health Foundation, facilitated a panel with Stephen; Greenville City Councilwoman, Amy Ryberg-Doyle; County Council Chairman, Butch Kirven; Executive Director of Upstate Forever, Andrea Cooper; and developer and President of Blue Wall Real Estate, Bogue Wallin. Maurie sought their views on previous comp plans, opportunities and challenges facing our area, and how to make the most out of the next comp plan process.

Butch Kirven felt that the County’s last comp plan was well done and was developed with broad input. But, he said, “Plans by themselves without a strategy for implementation are not effective. We did good planning, but we didn’t implement it.” He pointed out that unlike the zoning map, the future land use map – a centerpiece of comp plans that recommends where certain types of development should take place – does not hold the force of law.

Andrea Cooper agreed that the lack of follow through on the last plans was a missed opportunity. “Plans have to have teeth to make a real difference. We fell down last time by not having regulations, zoning, and ordinances to support the plan.”

In that sense, Bogue Wallin said that comp plans locally do not have as much impact on his work as a developer as does zoning, because zoning and existing infrastructure (utilities, roads, etc) impact what a developer is able to do more than a plan with no teeth. But he said, “Communities that really look to engage their comp plans on a day-to-day basis, rather than writing them and putting them on a shelf, are better at engaging the private sector.”

On the topic of infrastructure, Amy said, it’s not sexy, but it’s a critical issue for economic development and the environment. “Two years ago, we couldn’t permit forty projects in the city because of the lack of sewer capacity. Every city in the country is feeling the impacts of deferred maintenance on sewer. But we know it’s a critical issue because it helps the Reedy River and the environment.”

Butch pointed out how good comp plans with effective follow through are fiscally responsible. “There’s no big pot of money locally or in Columbia to pay for infrastructure,” he said. “Taxes are a tool, but they aren’t popular. But maybe there’s a way to make growth pay for infrastructure. For instance, if we take areas that already have the skeleton of infrastructure in place and promote development there, we create more communities like ones in decades past when we could walk to the grocery store, to school, to work. That concentration with more vertical development creates a lot more revenue for a community with a lower cost for local government and utilities to serve it than horizontal development.”

Maurie asked panelists if NIMBYism – the attitude of “not-in-my-backyard” – is an issue. Amy said it can be, but it helps if we personalize issues and opportunities and engage residents through social media and in person meetings. “We had an explosion of subdivisions in the City and we realized we needed to address infill. People don’t like the idea of infill, but when they realize that it helps us preserve farms and rural areas, they are more supportive. And we can mitigate concerns about infill with smart landscape policies, an emphasis on parks, supporting our tree foundation. It’s not going away – it’s an issue in every city. And we are no longer a big village –we are a small city.”

Bogue agreed. He said that as capital markets for real estate become more efficient and aggressive, it will find its way to tertiary cities like Greenville and the suburbs with new products for hotels, apartments, storage units, and more. This will only create more pressures on density, traffic, and quality of life. The comp plans should have a lot to say about this. “You have to think about comprehensive planning as the choices a community is making about growth and what the ground rules will be.”

Andrea emphasized that we know growth is happening – people are coming whether we want them or not. The real issue is not how many new residents are projected to move here, it’s how and where we will accommodate this growth. We must be strategic and proactive to grow in places where we want development so that we can preserve the rural character of our region and the natural places we love. “There are tradeoffs for every decision that we make, and we need to make decisions today that will allow for the future we envision.”

Bogue underscored this sentiment with a story of visiting the North Saluda Reservoir of the Greenville Water System. At the entrance to the reservoir is a monument to the Greenville Water System commissioners who took action to purchase the 19,000 acre watershed area in 1961. Today, Greenville County residents have some of the best drinking water in the nation and face fewer of the water challenges of cities like Atlanta. Bogue pointed out, “We are the beneficiaries of their foresight. What are we doing as a community to provide resources for the next generation?”

Several attendees and panelists felt one way to ensure stronger comp plans that provide for the future would be more formalized coordination between the county and municipalities. Both Amy and Butch noted that that there is a lot of informal communication among policy makers and staff, but if it could be made formal and consistent, that could only benefit all area residents.

How can philanthropy help? Several funders have offered financial support for the City of Greenville and Greenville County’s comprehensive planning process. Knowing how important citizen engagement will be, elected officials and staff present also emphasized the need for a team approach in soliciting resident input so that community members can together identify the North Star for our area’s next few decades.

Other resources:
Comprehensive Planning – Stephen Stansbery
Six best practices for creating a comprehensive plan
No Little Plans: the evolution of the comprehensive plan


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