About one-fifth of the available land in York and Chester counties is expected to be developed within 25 years, according to a new UNC Charlotte study.
Meanwhile, Mecklenburg County is on pace to have all of its available land developed during that time, the study shows.
The 24-county project on new urban growth, released last week, paints the clearest picture yet of how population increases and commercial development are changing the region.
The study area lost more than 100 acres daily to development from 1976 through 2006, the study found. That amounts to about 75 football fields each day.
Development during that period increased by 850 percent, and, according to the study, it's not slowing down.
The Open Space Protection Collaborative, which funded the study, is a group of six regional land-preservation organizations. Group officials plan to use the study to target areas where their efforts to save green space will have the greatest effect. The group hopes to also raise awareness about the issue.
"Economic development is good, but what would New York City be like without Central Park?" said Dave Cable, executive director of the Catawba Lands Conservancy. "If they hadn't planned for it, that space would have been used."
According to the study, only 2 percent of York County, mainly the Rock Hill area, was developed by 1976, compared to 98 percent natural/rural space. The amount of developed land doubled by 1985 and was being converted from natural/rural space by 2 acres each day. More developed land was appearing in Fort Mill, Clover and York.
In 2006, developed space was up to 15 percent, though protected or open space first began appearing on both sides of the county, the study found.
Experts project that by 2030, York County will see 21 percent of its area developed. Almost all of the area around Lake Wylie would be developed, as would Rock Hill and Fort Mill.
Chester County -- where only five-tenths of a percent of the land was developed in 1976 -- is projected to see 20 percent of its land developed by 2030.
Most of that growth is expected to occur around the city of Chester and the Interstate 77 corridor in the Richburg area.
The UNCC study found that 58 percent of Mecklenburg was developed by 2006, up from just 13 percent in 1976. Analysts said that, at the current pace, the county would be 97 percent developed by 2030.
Study is 'indispensable tool'
Previous attempts to mark the region's growth used Census information, which tracks population increases but does not depict development as accurately.
The UNCC study used satellite images to map the progression of impervious land, such as roads and buildings.
Researchers looked at quarter-acre segments. Parcels with greater than 25 percent of land mass covered by impervious surfaces were considered developed. Specialty areas, such as golf courses, also were considered developed.
Analysts used population-data factors -- such as available roads, proximity to urban centers and other development -- to predict future growth.
"People, I don't think, realize how much land is being gobbled up with these developments," said Jeff Updike, executive director of the Nation Ford Land Trust. "That's alarming that it takes that much land per person."
The Nation Ford Land Trust, also part of the Open Space Protection Collaborative, helped to preserve about 3,800 acres in York County last year. Like other members of the 4-year-old collaborative, Updike plans to take the study findings to area Council of Governments, along with county and municipal planners.
Cable called the study an "indispensable tool," and joins Updike and others in believing the pictorial representation of the loss of natural space could help create change.
"Our hope is that this tool will inspire more intentional planning of our region's growth and will also compel people to action to balance growth with thoughtful conservation," Cable said.
Michael said there may not be much that Mecklenburg can do at this stage, other than preserve pockets of green space in an otherwise developed landscape.
"But a county like York, even looking ahead to the year 2030, still has an opportunity to sustain nearly all of the county as open space," Michael said.
But it will take immediate action, Michael said.
"This research does not have to be viewed as antagonistic toward growth and development, but rather as a tool to help us figure out, as a region, how to grow smarter by concentrating limited resources and infrastructure," Michael said.
Susan Britt, York County planning and development director, said the county has a plan to control future development.
"It will continue to impact us," Britt said. "If we have implemented our land use plan effectively, we should be able to manage that growth. That's the key."
To view the UNCC study, visit gis.uncc.edu/ospc.