Vanishing Automobile update #35

Smart-Growth Plan Promotes Leapfrog Development

Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, is located in Richland County, which grew at the moderate pace of about 1.2 percent per year during the 1990s. This growth rate has raised concerns that urban development will pave over the rich farm lands that gave the county its name. So the county is considering a smart-growth plan that promises to stop sprawl and reduce auto dependency.

The county began by hiring several consultants, including Robert Burchell of Rutgers University, who is well known for studying the costs of sprawl. Burchell predictably recommended that the county draw an urban-growth boundary around Columbia and other towns and limit development outside of that boundary.

The county, however, chose not to follow this recommendation. Instead, in a "Town & Country Plan" approved in 1999, the county decided to promote the development of about thirty "villages" outside of the city of Columbia. A couple of these villages already exist with populations of 200 to 800 people, but most of them are just blank spots on the map with, at most, a house or two.

Although the plan has been approved, the county has not yet approved a zoning ordinance to implement it. The county is currently considering such an ordinance, but the proposal has spurred strong opposition.

According to the plan's leading advocate, County Councilwoman Kit Smith, the purpose of the plan is to curb "the leapfrog development ... that skips over land and goes into another ring." Yet in fact, the Town & Country Plan promotes just such leapfrog developments.

The village sites lie about five to ten miles apart from one another along roughly a dozen corridors radiating from Columbia. Each village thus represents a leapfrog development, pushing people further and further out from the city center. Each village is supposed to cover about a square mile and to accommodate 3,500 to 5,000 homes, offices, and businesses.

Richland County's 2000 population was about 320,000 people, and it grew at a rate of about 1.2 percent per year in the 1990s. Assuming each village contains around five thousand people, this plan could put nearly half of all county residents in such leapfrog developments.

Why would the county propose so many leapfrog developments when most other smart-growth plans call for containing the population within existing urbanized areas? At least part of the answer can be found in the racial politics of South Carolina.

Naturally, the proponents of the smart-growth plan are typically liberals who wouldn't be expected to be racists. Yet race is still an important element in the Town & Country Plan.

Since the 1970s, the white population of Richland County has remained constant at around 160,000 people. But the black population of the county has doubled from 73,000 to 146,000 people, and blacks could become the majority of the county before the end of the decade.

Moreover, the southern part of the county, known as "Lower Richland," contains one of the largest concentrations of African-American-owned lands in the U.S. Just about two-thirds of the 330-square miles of land in this area is owned by African-Americans, many of whom are descendents of slaves who worked hard to purchase the lands from white plantation owners after the end of the Civil War.

Today, many of the blacks living in Lower Richland remain very poor. Many live in mobile homes or other lesser-quality housing. Yet they own their own homes and the land on which they sit. Moreover, children and other family members have always known that, if they leave the area, they can return at any time and build a new home on their family land.

It is these people who will be hit hardest by a proposed Richland County zoning ordinance that is based on the Town & Country Plan. The ordinance will place numerous barriers to home construction. Mobile homes will be restricted. Existing mobile homes will be grandfathered, but if ever they are repaired the owner must place a masonry foundation under them -- which in many cases would cost more than the home is worth, not to mention more than the owner can afford.

The ordinance would place numerous other restrictions on residents throughout the county. They must get permits to do anything, from holding a yard sale -- no more than two per year -- to putting up a frontyard fence -- no more than four feet tall. New homes must have front porches and meet other requirements that will add tens of thousands of dollars to their cost -- not insignificant in an area where 77 percent of housing is worth less than $100,000.

The plan designates most of Lower Richland as the "Congaree Preserve," and makes it clear that the goal is to set aside most of this land from any further development. While the Town & Country Plan refers to large-lot zoning, the draft zoning ordinance relies on a policy of denying urban services to lands outside the proposed village sites. It is likely that many of the Lower Richland villages will largely consist of government-funded housing projects.

Many of the African-Americans in the area are greatly alarmed by this plan. As they see it, the plan's intent is to herd them off of their land and into the villages. In an article featuring Joe Neal, the keynote speaker at the Preserving the American Dream conference, Insight magazine quoted one landowner as saying that "The Sierra Club is now a chapter of the KKK."

Although rural African Americans stand to lose the most from this ordinance, they are not alone in their opposition. A diverse coalition known as the South Carolina Property Rights Watch has been opposing the ordinance. Other opponents include local homebuilders.

The opposition has successfully delayed passage of the ordinance well beyond the county's original target date of the end of 2000. But supporters of the Town & Country plan on the county council insist they will pass it by September of this year.

The Town & Country Plan is available at Richland County's web site. More information about the plan is available from South Carolina Property Rights Watch or by writing South Carolina Property Rights Watch, P. O. Box 38, Eastover, SC 29044.

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