Chester County's check on growth is a lesson learned from the past

There are two opportunity zones designated in Chester.
There are two opportunity zones designated in Chester.

Something rare in this region happened in Chester County recently — elected officials denied a residential rezoning request.

In a 3-1 decision March 19, Chester County Council said no to a developer that wanted to build more than double the number of homes now allowed on the 250 acres the company owns in Richburg. That put the brakes on a proposed 800-home subdivision that on paper looks a lot like the much maligned, high-density communities that have come to define once bucolic stretches of York and Lancaster counties.

Judging by some of the comments council members made after the vote, it’s easy to see they’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in Fort Mill, Lake Wylie and Indian Land, where years of unchecked growth by county and local governments have left residents grumbling about traffic jams and the loss of nature and officials now talking about “smart planning” to make the most of what ever is left to develop.

Chester County Councilman Brad Jordan, who voted against the rezoning, brought up safety issues in high-density development, citing a recent fire at Sun City Carolina Lakes in Indian Land, where a cigarette butt was the suspected cause of a fire in a home that spread to other homes. His point was that in a lower density neighborhood, the damage would more likely have been contained to the home where the fire began.

It’s not just the rapid proliferation of homes that upsets those who live in high-growth areas. The paradox in Lake Wylie, for example, is a flood of new residents in upscale homes, but a lack of public amenities and destinations for them to enjoy. Not that there's no commercial growth; Because of poor planning by York County Council, recreation opportunities are scarce, but there are seven gas stations/convenience stores along one three-mile stretch alone. Not to mention all the strip malls, storage facilities, car washes and tire stores that have popped up from the ground like crocus in spring.

But none of the destinations that draw Lake Wylie residents to other parts of York County, or Charlotte.

Fort Mill and Indian Land are only a little better better off. In fact, looking at Lake Wylie today is like peering through a portal and seeing Fort Mill and Indian Land’s past. Thankfully, officials in Chester seem aware enough to not let history repeat itself in their county. The same goes for the nascent town of Van Wyck, where residents voted to incorporate so they could have more of a say over growth. Indian Land voters turned down that opportunity about two weeks ago, though at this point there is relatively little vacant space left for development of any kind.

Chester doesn’t appear to be anti-growth; Rather, county council there seems invested in achieving a sustainable balance that includes preserving enough open space that Chester, unlike other parts of the region, won’t become unrecognizable.

This by no means will be the last decision Chester will make when it comes to residential development. Hopefully, the one they made last month sends a message to developers that growth is welcome, but only if it’s done responsibly.