In Fort Mill, building is booming again

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comFebruary 12, 2013 

— Several years of recession and stagnate development are proving to be the exception rather than the rule in this town, as Fort Mill finds itself near pre-downturn building levels – and climbing.

“We’re back to about 85 percent of pre-recession levels,” said Joe Cronin, assistant town manager and planning director.

The most recent fiscal year, which ended in the fall, much closer resembled the building boom prior to 2008 than the years in between. Building permits, new homes and commercial applications were up significantly. And early into this fiscal year, results are as strong or better than last year.

John Hardy, division president for homebuilder Lennar, doesn’t contest Cronin’s assessment.

“That’s pretty close,” Hardy said. “We’re probably at 75 to 80 percent. We can’t complain. We’re starting to see an upswing.”

Lennar sold out a phase of 40 homes in Springfield in 13 months and had to start pre-selling another phase to keep up with demand. They’ve already sold six in the current 63-home phase and broke ground on 12 sites two weeks ago.

“Then there’s another phase beyond that as well,” Hardy said.

Numbers are up not only for single family residential but across the board, including commercial. Overall town permit revenue was up 61 percent last year, and the construction value of permits jumped more than 80 percent to $68.4 million. Multi-family housing is booming, too.

“We’re pretty full right now,” said Susan Haliq, community manager at The Paddock at Springfield. “We’re running at 97 percent occupied and have been since about last summer.”

The Paddock opened in 2010 with 248 units. Keeping them filled hasn’t been a problem of late, particularly due to demand from parents wanting their children in the Fort Mill School District.

“That is the biggest factor,” Haliq said. “People want to be here for the schools. That’s why I moved to Fort Mill.”

Cronin isn’t expecting a slowdown soon. One day in January, he had 22 zoning requests pass his desk. Walden Park, Jones Branch and Springfield essentially finished their permitting, but there are still more projects like Forest at Fort Mill (11 new home permits last month out of 85 total) and another that, pending rezoning, could bring 250 more homes.

Then there’s Massey.

“Massey will be huge,” Cronin said. “A lot of people don’t realize how big Massey will be. The section that’s open now is not even all of phase one.”

More than 40 new permits came to the town in eight months at Massey, after nothing of note for three years prior. A school is planned there, too. For comparison, Springfield is approved for almost 650 homes at full build-out. Massey is more than 1,000.

“That’s brought new life into that subdivision,” Cronin said of increased building activity.

Just before the recession hit Fort Mill had a year of 162 new homes built. Last year there were 142. It’s still early, but this year’s pace is for 180-200.

Thanks to impact fees, new homes are a source of revenue for the Fort Mill School District, which collected more than $2 million from July 2011, to March 2012 – before the current surge in building.

The next several months could be key in identifying where growth will take the town. On one hand, builders just out of the recession are thinking more about smaller, multi-phase development rather than clearing huge parcels at a time.

“They’re more conservative than they were a few years ago,” Cronin said.

But there also are factors like the new Southern Bypass, which has developers “lining up” at the prospect of locating near it.

“We can’t underestimate what the bypass is going to do for that side of town,” Cronin said.

The town has work to do in accommodating all the coming growth. The recession helped by offering some time, but there are needs like updating town zoning (it’s 30 years old in places) and determining how best to manage growth along the bypass corridor.

“We’re better than where we were,” Cronin said. “We’ve probably not all the way back to where we need to be.”

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