City moves to protect Catawba River, wooded land

The motivation for their plans grew, in part, from a glance across the Catawba, where the sprawling Sun City Carolina Lakes retirement community stretches nearly to the water's edge.

"Seeing a builder clear-cut down to our river on the Lancaster side was a wake-up call to me," said Barre Mitchell, who served on a committee that spent a year devising the proposals. "Lancaster County was very glad to have that, don't get me wrong. But what keeps somebody from doing that same kind of thing right here in York County?"

Among the proposals to go before the Planning Commission on Nov. 12:

• New incentives to reward developers for leaving open spaces beyond city requirements.

• Expanded buffer zones to separate environmentally sensitive areas from development and tree-clearing activities.

• A requirement that developers build trails and greenways in areas where they can connect to others across the county.

• Improved guidelines to manage stormwater runoff in a more environmentally friendly way.

Whether the changes draw major opposition from developers remains unclear because none has played a significant part in working on them even though they were invited, another committee member said.

"The development community, on this deal, dropped the ball," said John Bergin, a broker with Coldwell Banker/The Tuttle Co. "They were asked, and unfortunately I don't think it was a very good showing."

However, he added, the city could have made more of an effort to get developers involved.

One developer told The Herald he didn't have the time to commit to a year's worth of monthly meetings. Other developers in the past have questioned if their views are listened to even when they have participated.

Protecting the Catawba

The guidelines, to be added to the city's Comprehensive Plan, will impact how homes and businesses can be built around creeks, streams and wooded areas across town.

But they also represent the latest effort to protect the Catawba River for the future enjoyment of hikers, kayakers and outdoor enthusiasts. Mayor Doug Echols has said the city will grow toward the river over the next 10 years, and conservationists warn that this growth must be managed carefully.

"We haven't paid as much attention to the river in the past as we could have," said Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Pender. "Now, with the discussions in particular about drinking water, it's important for that reason. But also as we grow ... we need to make sure we preserve what we have."

Two massive developments are envisioned close to the Catawba over the next few years:

• At the 1,000-acre Celanese site off Cherry Road, developers have embarked on a $600 million plan to build shops, an office park and hundreds of homes, including many overlooking the river. A formal proposal is expected to go before the City Council soon.

• Beyond the city limits east of town, Newland Communities envisions homes on 1,800 acres of wooded land. However, Newland has halted talks with the city and York County, leaving the project mired in uncertainty.

Also, the city and a coalition of business boosters are making a renewed push to extend Dave Lyle Boulevard into Lancaster County. The 11-mile route would cut through huge swaths of woods and open up more land for development.

"We have a window of opportunity now to make changes," said Frank Traficante of a local Sierra Club group called Henry's Knob. "Five years from now, there may be little land left in Rock Hill to protect."

Better than past attempts?

Two years ago, developers complained often and loudly as City Hall overhauled its zoning code for the first time in decades. They called the changes draconian and predicted higher home prices.

This time, planners did a better job, says Robby Belk, chairman of the York County Homebuilders Association and a member of the committee.

"I'm a lot more into this than I am the zoning," Belk said. With the zoning, "they (planners) were so scared, so worried, that they jumped in and didn't think about what they were doing. They set it up and just did it. This one, they took their time, got their information."

In explaining the city's goals, Mitchell gave two magic words that have become familiar to many urban planners: Baxter Village. The Fort Mill mixed-use center, he said, is one example of a smart, deliberate approach to growth.

"They've got all that green space out in the middle where the kids play," he said. "Those people can ride their bicycle to the store. That is the kind of connectivity that we need. We have good examples right here that we can hit with a stone."

Though the legwork already has been finished, developers still have time to weigh in on the changes, said Chad Williams, a committee member and planning commissioner.

"Everybody that wanted input in the meetings got input," he said. "There were people invited that chose not to come. That happens just about every time we do this ... If they want to show up on the 12th, they're welcome to."