Springs to unveil vision for annexation

FORT MILL -- A decade ago, Fort Mill had four traffic accidents aa month. Now, the town averages 36 a month.

Fort Mill's fire department, which relied primarily on volunteer firefighters 10 years ago, has nine full-time firefighters now and is seeking more.

Next spring, the school district will ask voters to approve bonds totaling about $98 million for additional school facilities, and town safety chiefs foresee substations and more manpower and equipment in the future.

The town's burgeoning growth promises to continue, which raises the question: Can Fort Mill provide all the services the growth will demand?

Clear Springs Development Co. and Leroy Springs, a nonprofit company, Tuesday will give the public a chance to see their plans for annexing 4,600 acres into the town, doubling its size. Town officials are negotiating development agreements with the companies, both held by The Springs Co. and Close family members.

Clear Springs hopes annexation proceedings can be completed by the end of the year, company president James Traynor said. Completion of the developments themselves is expected to take 20 years. Nearly 2,000 of the 4,600 acres is the Anne Springs Close Greenway, which the fire department already serves. The annexations do not include Baxter Village.

Town officials favor the plans overall, not only because of Springs' history in the community, but largely because Clear Springs has balanced commercial and industrial property with middle- and high-end residential designed to provide the tax base Fort Mill needs to furnish public services.

"Logically, more people will require more policemen and firefighters," said the town's planning director, Andy Merriman.

Last year, the town allowed Police Chief Jeff Helms to hire five more police officers. Fire Chief Ken Kerber received two full-time firefighters.

Helms said his biggest problem with growth in general is traffic calls, and he will ask for a few more officers again this year.

"We are going to get calls more often," Helms said. "As the town gets bigger, the response time gets longer. There's a lot more cases for investigations. Even our dispatchers are swamped. We rarely have a day now that we don't have a prisoner in the jail."

While the police department covers the town, the fire department includes the entire Fort Mill school district, which experienced 1,580 new occupied homes in the past 12 months. The department operates in conjunction with the Flint Hill, Tega Cay and Riverview fire departments and calls on York County in some emergencies.

With more volunteer firefighters employed in Charlotte and other far-flung locations, Kerber fears what could happen if a major fire blazed on a weekday. He referred to the Tony's Pizza fire that recently destroyed two of the town's historic downtown buildings and could have spread to the entire block.

"It was on the weekend, and we had 65 firefighters," Kerber said. "If that occurred at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, I'd have to call 30 departments to get that many people there."

Developers are required to install sewer and water at their expense, Merriman said. The town operates its own sewage system but buys water from Rock Hill. So what would happen if Rock Hill discontinued service to Fort Mill?

"If Rock Hill ran out of water, all growth would stop in its service area," Traynor said.

Town officials are comfortable with the fiscal analysis Clear Springs provided to demonstrate how the developments would support rather than drain the town's tax base, Merriman said. It was done by Harry Miley Jr. of Miley, Gallo and Associates, which has provided fiscal analyses for public entities in addition to major developers such as Greenwood Development, Newland Communities, Toll Brothers Luxury Home Developments and others.

The study estimates net revenues over expenditures for the town over 30 years at $101.6 million.

Money for schools

School district benefits from taxes and impact fees during the same period are estimated at $138.8 million: $56.7 million for operating and $82.1 million for capital improvements.

School officials are particularly concerned about commercial and industrial development because homeowners no longer will pay school operating taxes directly under a new state law, although businesses will. The state instead is collecting an additional 1-cent sales tax which it will distribute to school districts based on statewide growth. Fort Mill, the fastest-growing school district in the state, is expanding at a rate far exceeding the state average.

Miley's analysis specifically included all capital expenses the school district anticipates over the next 30 years.

Clear Springs plans to develop the Kingsley mixed-use residential, commercial and light industrial property first, Traynor said, as well as Springfield, which is primarily residential. Kingsley is located at the northwest corner of S.C. 160 and the U.S. 21 Bypass around a hospital proposed by Tenet, owner of Piedmont Medical Center. Springfield is off Springfield Parkway along the new northern bypass.

In general, houses need to be built first to provide customers for commercial business, Traynor said. When Clear Springs built Baxter Village, U.S. Food Service, a food distributor, moved corporate offices into Clear Springs' Bradley Park industrial complex to provide tax base for services Baxter's first homes would require, he said.

"You can put commercial uses in first in areas that have high traffic," Traynor said. "S.C. 160 and Springfield Parkway would work for that. We likely will do some commercial development there first, but as a general rule, you need the rooftops first."

There is a threshold at which a home's value in tax dollars exceeds services it will require, and Miley said most of Clear Springs' residential units meet or exceed that threshold.

"Clear Springs has proven itself as a responsible developer," Merriman said. "Time is the only thing that's going to tell to the dollar."

Karen Bair • 329-4080