It’s a question often asked in York County: Should overloaded, poorly maintained roads stop new home construction?
If not unprecedented, it certainly was an unusual step when council voted Dec. 3 not to allow a zoning change for 222 acres at S.C. 557 and Riddle Mill Road in the Lake Wylie area. Typically council passes the first, or even the second, of three votes to approve a change, even when council members have reservations.
Council voted down the Riddle Mill Road request on the first vote.
The reason is roads, according to council members and residents.
“M/I Homes has put together a great plan,” said York County Councilwoman Allison Love. “They put a lot of time and effort into this. The problem with it is it’s a great plan for an area that will allow 217 homes. This parcel of land does not allow 217 homes.”
Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said: “I don’t see how a builder could have done any more to be accommodating. There’s just no room for growth right now in that area.”
Yet, if roads is reason enough to stop development, one council member wonders where that line of thinking ends.
“The majority of our roads are failing,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey. “So if we’re going to base it solely off failing roads, then we can just say no more building in York County.”
Traffic congestion woes
Norman Hatley lives on Riddle Mill Road.
“I dodged holes on the roadway down here,” he told council. “I’ve tried to get a road repaired on Riddle Mill, a hole in it in front of a concrete plant. It took me about five months.”
New homes would mean more people to strain schools, law enforcement, fire protection, emergency response, he said. And the roads play into all of it.
Hatley calls the roads pitiful. Vehicles twist and turn along them just to avoid dips and divots.
“You have to ride with your hand on the horn just to keep people on their side of the road,” he said.
Concord Road resident Karen Clarke went out recently to a new business in Lake Wylie. She needed to travel only the short stretch from Three Points, where S.C. 49/274/557 meet, to the Buster Boyd Bridge. Had she traveled in the opposite direction, she wouldn’t have made it.
“It was bumper to bumper, and not a single tire was moving,” Clarke said. “It was completely stopped.”
Similar stories are common not just in the Lake Wylie area, but from residents near Fort Mill and Tega Cay when they’ve come to council in recent years seeking cutbacks on new home construction. Regional travel models, like one from the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study, show traffic congestion in the area from Buster Boyd up to Pole Branch Road is on par with the worst congestion in York county.
“I’m hoping by now, as our elected officials, everybody’s had a chance to go down ... and see the congestion, and what we actually deal with day to day,” said Riddle Oak Lane resident Greg Willis.
Roddey said, many parts of the county could make the same argument.
“The No. 1 thing that neighbors and residents come and pitch, is traffic,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about traffic. We’re going to be behind on roads and traffic for the next 15 years. Trust me. That’s a given.”
Roddey said he wants to see -- if county planners recommend denial for a project or zoning change to allow it -- more information including a number of homes that is acceptable. Otherwise roads in Lake Wylie, Clover, Fort Mill and Tega Cay will keep anything from being built, he said.
Councilwoman Allison Love, who lives in and represents Lake Wylie, said she believes her area is different even among high-growth areas.
“We have roads that, once you’re on that road, there’s no getting off,” she said. “It’s kind of like getting in a line at Carowinds. Once you’re in that line, you’re in that line.”
Lake Wylie is a series of peninsulas among coves. Mill, Crowders, Big and Little Allison and other creeks create single entrance roads. Lake Wylie has only one bridge, Buster Boyd. Otherwise drivers must travel to Rock Hill or into Belmont, N.C., to cross the Catawba River.
The Allison Creek peninsula has more than 50 roads and subdivisions all with access to S.C. 274 only along Allison Creek Road. One peninsula north, Concord Road has close to 30 roads full of homes and a nuclear station with just one access to the main highway.
Love recently invited a large group of people to come try out a new restaurant in Lake Wylie on a Friday night.
“A large number of the people could not even get there,” she said. “They would have been three hours late.”
Right plan, wrong place
While the the M/I Homes zoning proposal was denied, the plan itself was well received.
“You’ve got the best plan of any developer that’s come before this council for my district,” Love told company vice president of land Scott Herr before voting down the request.
A traffic study found the 217 planned homes would need a new traffic signal out front, a southbound left turn land on Riddle Mill Road and northbound left turn lane on Bethel School Road. Pennies for Progress has improvements planned for those roads. Rather than wait, M/I Homes agreed to make the improvements.
That decision flipped the county planning staff recommendation from denial to approval. The county planning commission also recommended in favor of the project, with the road improvements.
“The plan was approved, because it’s a great plan,” Herr said. “It’s less than one unit to the acre, with almost 70 percent open space, and we think it’s a great model for what development can be in Lake Wylie.”
Yet because of what already is built, and a looming decision on the 842-home Westport subdivision at S.C. 49 and Daimler Boulevard seeking a time extension to build, Love was hesitant.
“What’s been allowed before you is not great,” she said. “A lot of it was not great. It’s extremely dense.”
Not everyone was sold on the M/I Homes plan.
“I’m also sort of wondering why I’m here again,” Bonum Road resident Ellen Goff told council. “Because we have been — we, Lake Wylie residents, have been — before you again, again and again saying we can’t take the growth.”
Goff is a long-time board member with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation who worries how development impacts water quality through sediment runoff into the lake. She and other Lake Wylie residents have been out numerous times asking council to stop or slow building.
“We’re not anti-business,” Goff said. “We just can’t take it. We can’t get out on the roads. We can’t take it because our schools are overflowing. The lake can’t take it. Not all this construction.”
Should roads swing votes?
Roddey said he believes M/I Homes could ask for 50 homes -- or several hundred -- and would have gotten the same reaction. That’s why he wants planners to provide an acceptable number of homes, on a case-by-case basis.
“I’ve been here eight years,” Roddey said. “I have yet to see a community come up and say, yeah, we want 200 homes.”
Whatever zoning a property has allows certain land uses by right. The Riddle Mill Road site still can have homes. The number depends on several factors, including whether public water and sewer serve the site. Initially M/I Homes pitched a plan, with a zoning, for 333 homes.
Council can’t stop by-right development.
Mill Creek Commons, for instance, once was a controversial plan to bring a Wal-Mart and other businesses to Lake Wylie. There weren’t public hearings or votes, since the site already had zoning that allowed the commercial center.
“I have told folks from Lake Wylie the whole time, I can’t do anything when it’s by right,” Williams said. “But if it’s a zoning change, I can do something about that.”
Don Clarke, husband to Karen, spoke out several times to council and other groups last year when Duke Energy began marketing property along Concord Road for possible residential development. He had the same road, environmental and population growth concerns.
He sees patterns in zoning requests. Developers show amenities and features while asking to double or more the amount of homes they can build.
“Beautiful buffers, sidewalks, internal parks and swimming pools do not address the resulting impact on York County schools and roads,” Don Clarke said. “There could be twice as many school-age children and twice as many cars. And that’s the issue.”