Fort Mill’s beauty is fading fast

April 7, 2014 

Now that the weather has caught up with the calendar and it actually feels like spring, many of us are taking advantage by spending more time outdoors. As welcome as that is after a cold, gloomy winter, it also brings a stark reality into sharper focus.

The natural beauty of Fort Mill Township is fading fast.

From Tega Cay to the Indian Land Panhandle, the tree line has given way to asphalt, literally paving the way for thousands of new homes and strip malls. Around the township, new schools are under construction. Even rural Van Wyck on the edge of the Panhandle isn’t immune to the growth.

Some of the critics of the fast changing landscape are lifelong residents, including many whose families have been here since the mill town days. Some families with deep roots in Fort Mill Township have also been among the largest land holders and quite a few have sold what used to be farmland and woods to the developers who are now paving it over. That makes it a complicated issue on which to frame an argument.

We live in a society where private property is sacrosanct and it should be a rare instance when a property owner is scorned for making a profit off his or her land. One of the few examples we can think of would be selling land to a known hate group and thankfully, that’s not an issue we’ve had to confront.

Even the best intentions of property owners can go awry. A case in point is a gift of 400 acres of property along the Catawba River in Fort Mill from Jane Spratt McColl and her family to what used to be the fund-raising arm of the York County museum system. In the more than a decade that followed, plans for the property varied from a museum with an environmental theme, a museum with a history theme, a “sustainable” subdivision and now just a subdivision. That proposed subdivision of more than 600 homes would be part of a mixed-use development that would include commercial space and join 274 acres of the former McColl property with 282 adjoining acres already owned by the developer.

McColl didn’t put any conditions on the gift, but the recipient’s initial plans gave those who cared hope that a sizable chunk of the property would remain green space while the rest was used in a way that somehow paid homage to the environment and would be available for public use. That notion was all but dashed when the partnership that was supposed to produce the sustainable community went sideways about five years ago and the foundation had to sell some of the land to raise more than $3 million to pay the developer.

The result: The Raleigh, N.C.-based developer is made whole and gets to walks away in the midst of a downturn in the real estate market and the events leading to a huge, new community are set in motion. So much for any plans that would have preserved the riverfront site and created something worthwhile for public use.

That property may have represented the best chance to protect a significant portion of the township’s natural beauty, but that doesn’t mean public officials and residents should give up. There are still pockets of woods and other undeveloped sites, particularly in the township’s Panhandle area, that can be saved from over-development. Residents should use every opportunity to voice their opinions at hearings when re-zoning applications and development plans are considered. Officials should reject development plans whenever that option is within their authority, as the York County Council did recently in denying a request to expand a subdivision by more than 100 units above what was allowed under current zoning.

Negotiating with developers to set aside more of their property for green space should always be a priority and officials shouldn’t be shy with their demands. Perhaps tax breaks can be offered in certain cases based on acreage and the preservation of trees. Ultimately, not all developers will agree, but any who come on-board would represent progress.

The township’s beauty is fading fast, but it’s not too late to save some of what remains.

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