Fort Mill planners, in search of answers to increasing traffic, are thinking outside the asphalt.
Sure, they still want to lobby for Pennies for Progress, C-Fund and Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study funds — the main county, state and federal road construction sources. But they need more.
“The solution to a lot of our transportation problems is, people need to drive less,” said Joe Cronin, town planning director.
A town transportation study is in the drafting stage and should be finalized in December, Cronin said. A survey is being sent to Town Council and the planning commission on what options the town should take. Some options have little to do with new roads.
More sidewalks, pathways between neighborhoods and connectivity between new homes and business could go into town planning. Then there’s the idea of steering traffic, but planners need to know where.
“We’re changing into something different,” said Councilman Tom Adams. “We need to decide what we want to be.”
Branding the town
Fort Mill used to be a textile town. Now, the question is, what will Fort Mill become?
“We’re trying to hang on to the good from that and bring in the good from growth,” said Councilwoman Guynn Savage.
A strong school system has Fort Mill “branded by default” with education, she said. Should the Anne Springs Close Greenway, golf courses or the Catawba River be anchors to an emerging Fort Mill identity, the way sports are in Rock Hill and banks in Charlotte?
Setting an identity would help make traffic decisions, Council members say.
“We don’t really know where we want to push that traffic,” Savage said.
James Traynor, chairman of the town planning commission, said while public input was sparse during the most recent comprehensive plan rework, themes emerged. Residents wanted strong schools and employment, mixed use sites and more places to shop.
“We got some fairly consistent messages,” he said.
Dennis Pieper, town manager, said he hears from people daily who want places to shop and otherwise spend their money in town. Mayor Danny Funderburk said the large retailers many people want “are determined by rooftops,” and residential growth is part of determining what stores come.
“We’ve got the houses,” planning commission member John Garver said. “If they’re not built (yet), they’re getting built. We need the businesses to come in behind that.”
Council and the planning commission spent time brainstorming brands, but a main piece is getting any idea for how the town should grow to resonate with landowners.
“If we don’t have a buy-in from the people who own the land, it’s all hot air,” Funderburk said.
Council members say they want to have an answer for repeated traffic questions in town. As residential growth continues, so does resident concern.
“We do take a lot of criticism for what we’ve allowed it to become,” Adams said.
Council members feel they only can do so much to limit new residences. Often, annexation plans come from developers who can put the same number or more units on the land, but choose fewer to be inside town limits. Homes impact public services regardless whether they’re just inside or outside town, but contribute taxes if annexed.
“Just about every single bit of what’s happened, was going to happen regardless,” Funderburk said.
The town could create a new transportation fund, or road impact fee. Property tax from vehicles could go to the fund. A recent trend is for developers in high-traffic areas to make voluntary payments toward needed road work.
“That’s not going to solve the problem,” said Chris Wolfe, planning commissioner. “It helps.”
There are less popular options, too. The county recently discussed not taking in roads from new developments, leaving them the responsibility of homeowner associations. Planners wonder, could it be an option in Fort Mill?
Then there’s the case of S.C. 160. In 1987 the stretch from Gold Hill Road to I-77, and the stretch from U.S. 21 to Main Street, each had about 8,700 vehicles per day. The Gold Hill to I-77 stretch, widened in 1999, now has more than 30,000 vehicles per day. The other stretch has 9,400.
Simply not widening roads may not sit well with residents, but it is an option.
“You’re inviting more people (by widening),” Cronin said.
Planners agree there’s no way to “pave your way out of traffic.” But that money for new roads is important. RFATS director David Hooper said Funderburk represents the town well to his federal funding group, but more representation at public meetings could make a difference.
“That’s something that needs to be coming from more than one voice,” Hooper said.
Plus, new or widened roads aren’t the only concern. Neighborhoods like White Grove, Dominion Bridge and Ardrey Acres shot up around the same time on Doby’s Bridge Road a couple decades ago. Meaning they’ll all require maintenance about the same time. The town budgets just $100,000 annually for maintenance now.
“Maintenance is going to become a bigger issue,” Cronin said.