Life or death traffic? Lake Wylie residents fret over more planned homes on busy road

Once quiet S.C. 557 in Lake Wylie so busy, it’s dangerous, residents say

At a York County Council on Monday night, Lake Wylie neighbors turned out to testify that traffic in Lake Wylie is a life and death issue. Especially S.C. 557, were there is at least one serious wreck a week, they say.
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At a York County Council on Monday night, Lake Wylie neighbors turned out to testify that traffic in Lake Wylie is a life and death issue. Especially S.C. 557, were there is at least one serious wreck a week, they say.

Neighbors say traffic in Lake Wylie is a life and death issue.

When Crystal Wells said it, York County leaders didn’t have to look far to see the lives she was talking about.

“It’s not just words,” Wells told York County Council Monday night, with one small child in her arms and another at her side. She said she was almost T-boned while driving to the meeting. “I had the kids in the car.”

Mary Beth Yancy said she moved to Lake Wylie from Charlotte 13 years ago, buying “10 acres of peace and quiet” in a place where she wouldn’t see a car from where Publix is now, down S.C. 557. It’s a stretch of road, she said, where in recent years there have been multiple wrecks and fatalities.

“I have gotten to where I don’t even like to take a left off of Riddle Mill onto 557,” she said. “I have come so close (to being hit), so many times.”

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Retired nurse Patricia Grekoski, who moved to Patrick Place two years ago, said the road beside Mill Creek Crossing offers nowhere for drivers to pull aside even for emergency vehicles.

“If something ever happened to anybody in our development during rush hour traffic, we’d be dead before an ambulance could actually get through,” she said.

The road infrastructure “can’t handle what is there already,” Grekoski said, which has residents concerned.

“There is probably an accident there on a weekly basis,” she said. “And I’m not talking just a fender bender. It’s cars overturned, the ambulances, fire engines blocking traffic. You have one accident and you’re going to sit for hours.”

Home sweet home?

More than a dozen residents showed up Monday night to ask the council not to approve more homes.

Scott Herr, vice president of land for M/I Homes, said his company builds 400 to 500 houses per year in the Charlotte area. Plans for a subdivision on 222 acres on Riddle Mill Road would be unlike most any of them.

“It’s a plan that we believe gives people a neighborhood where the land and the environment and the natural features of the property itself become as much of an amenity as any pool or cabana or playground or anything like that,” Herr said.

Initial plans were for 333 homes. Even that plan would “meet or exceed” county standards on open space, buffers and building density, Herr said. But company understood residents would be concerned.

“We knew going into it that there would be some push back,” he said.

Since January, the company took feedback from residents and worked it into a proposal for 217 units. That pitch includes 100-foot buffers, a common field, gathering spaces, trails and play areas. It includes 153 acres of open space.

The “very significant changes” since January will create “a much better neighborhood,” Herr said.

“We tried to listen to the community and make changes,” he said.

Which is exactly what residents there want now from council.

“It is absolutely to the point where there is so much traffic, that I’m going around my rear end to get to my elbow to get onto 557 so I can leave town,” Yancy said.

Norman Hatley lives on eight acres, and has since the late 1970s. There are potholes and concrete trucks from a nearby plant, he said, and so much traffic he has to time his trips to the trash dump.

“If I don’t go before 2 o’clock, anything after that it probably takes me 10 minutes to get across the highway,” Hatley said. “And usually you can’t get across unless you go a different detour. You take a right, turn down to come back up.”

Hatley said it’s too dangerous for him to consider turning left out of his driveway. More homes are coming from the massive McLean area north of the state line, and he doesn’t want to think what hundreds more home in Lake Wylie could mean.

“We’d rather not have the growth if we can help it,” Hatley said. “I know we can’t stop it all.”

A changing landscape

The M/I Homes project isn’t unique.

Through last October, there were 24 active, approved or proposed residential building sites in Lake Wylie combining for more than 4,600 homes and apartments. Those projects cover more than 2,400 acres.

On Aug. 23, MT Land has a public presentation planned at Good Samaritan UMC to discuss its property at S.C. 274 and Pole Branch Road.

In January, the company held a similar meeting, asking for 178 homes on as many acres for The Vista at Lake Wylie. Residents argued against it. Now the company is pitching 149 homes and no access onto Harper Davis Road, a main concern for neighbors there.

Long-time residents say they are worried about what is happening.

“The destruction of our woods is heartbreaking,” Yancy said. “I know my husband and I are at the point now where we’re looking to leave.”

It’s traffic, but it’s also the loss of “countless chickens” to coyotes that she said are getting closer to homes as woods dwindle.

Deer and turkey are gone. So when getting to the Buster Boyd Bridge takes twice as long as it did years ago -- up to a half hour when there isn’t gridlock -- Yancy questions whether to stay.

“The quality of life has plummeted,” she said. “I don’t know any other way to put it. It has truly plummeted. There’s litter. It’s just out of control.”

Don Johnson has been living off Riddle Mill Road for 40 years. He added to the family farm over time. He has a hard time imagining so many people so close together, especially when “the traffic is getting out of hand” already.

“I’m not trying to stop progress,” Johnson said. “Don’t get me wrong. But everybody deserves to have a little spot of land they can move around on.”

Pete Amato has been here 14 years. He works at the airport in Charlotte, so he has to battle the traffic.

“Traffic coming through Lake Wylie is horrendous,” he said. “I don’t know what makes sense to build more houses right now until we catch up on the roads that we’re driving on.”

Amato said there have been six “serious accidents” near his house, and he called 911 several times for cars breaking down due to traffic or potholes.

Teresa Killian was born on 87 acres off Lincoln Road, and is “so thoroughly frustrated” with the change she worries it isn’t the same community for her grandchildren.

Don Clarke figures the area will need impact fees, similar to the ones recently increased by the county in the Fort Mill school district. He also worries, after a massive sediment spill in the Bonum Road area this summer, that Crowders Creek will be next.

“Crowders Creek will be the site of the next siltation problem, if this is approved,” Clarke said.

Amid all the talk of new homes, resident Benita Westbrook wonders how much weight the voices of existing residents carry.

“Take the current population and residents into consideration,” she told council, “and what we are dealing with.”

A wider concern

If residents fear what Lake Wylie could become, it’s in part because they see what has happened in other nearby communities.

Wells moved from Steele Creek, just across the state line, and one of the fastest-growing areas in North Carolina or the region. She did her homework. Then Wells marked Fort Mill off the list.

“I didn’t want my kids going into a school district that can barely handle what it has,” she said, referring to rapid and relentless growth there. “And I just worry that we haven’t been here a year and already it seems like it’s the same pattern.”

The impact fees for the Fort Mill district went up from $2,500 for every new home or apartment built to more than $18,000 per new home and $12,000 per apartment. The district and many residents argued the money was needed to keep up with rapid growth. Several school bonds have come up in recent years, too, to address money needed for new schools.

York County’s impact fee increase has since been challenged in court.

As Wells stood in tears with her children Monday night, one set to start kindergarten the following morning, she described almost being hit by another car at S.C. 557 and Riddle Mill.

“We looked in Fort Mill. We looked in Tega Cay,” Wells said. “We picked Clover because we could get lots of land for our kids to grow up on, and not have to worry about traffic. And we were almost T-boned coming here.”

Council members themselves have brought up the connection between Lake Wylie and other high-growth areas.

Councilwoman Allison Love, who represents Lake Wylie, said at a recent meeting that she and more than 2,000 people signed a petition saying they don’t want another Fort Mill.

“I look at Fort Mill and I look at what Lake Wylie could possibly become,” Love said.

Greg Willis has the feeling of having been here before, too. He moved to Lake Wylie a decade ago from Tega Cay. That city used to be a guard shack and a peninsula.

“Then they opened it up,” Willis said. “They started building subdivision after subdivision after subdivision. I don’t know if anybody’s driven by Tega Cay lately, but you cannot get in and out. And I just do not want that to happen to us.”

Willis isn’t convinced when developers talk about Pennies for Progress, the 1-cent sales tax approved by county voters that will pay to widen S.C. 557 near the M/I Home project.

“That’s for the traffic that we have now,” he said. “Not to put another 200 or 300 houses in that little area.”

Clarke agrees. People don’t vote for Pennies, he said, because they want more growth.

“Pennies for Progress is the solution to the problems we’ve already created, not the problems that we anticipate,” Clarke said. “I don’t think you could ever pass another Pennies for Progress initiative if people thought that it was to permit greater development of the area.”

Resident Dorothy Johnson also isn’t buying it when developers say they can’t build on larger lots because there isn’t the same market for them as there is for homes clustered on small lots.

“I believe one- and two-acre plots would sell, and we should strongly encourage these builders to do one- and two-acre, at least,” Johnson said.

The common theme for residents, though, is traffic. It’s more than a hassle, they say. Many spoke on Monday of injuries and fatalities. The gridlock, frustrating as it is, only makes up part of the problem, residents say.

“It’s already over capacity,” said 20-year resident Eric Burkhart. “There’s no other way across the lake without going to Gaston County (N.C.) or down to Rock Hill.”

The council didn’t vote on the new home plan Monday.

Historically, a plan comes in, gets its planning staff review and its planning commission recommendation, then comes to council for a public hearing and three votes.

Because public hearing came so late in the game, and because of intense interest in projects like the M/I Homes proposal, the council decided to start holding public hearings first.

“The planning commission will be the one to make their recommendation, to send it back to us,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey. “We’re trying a different process.”

The idea behind that change was to hear more from the public, and sooner.

“It’s for our ability to kind of get a feel for things before it goes through the process,” said council Chairman Britt Blackwell.

So for now residents, who hope their voices might make a difference, will have to wait.

Want to be heard?

The MT Land meeting will be held 7-8 p.m. Aug. 23 at Good Samaritan UMC at the intersection of S.C. 49 and S.C. 274 and is open to the public.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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