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Greenville Business Magazine

Future Land Use

Jul 03, 2017 01:43PM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

Real estate may be all about location-times-three, but when it comes to how we humans plan to use increasingly more of it, especially with the explosive value of the Upstate, discussions dig deeper into dirt and dollars.

“Your accountant doesn’t care if you buy a boat, your accountant cares if you can afford that boat,” says Joe Minicozzi, a Harvard-trained urban designer. “We just care that you can afford your future. Make sure that you’re accounting for all of it and making those choices. There will be choices, there will be tradeoffs.”

Minicozzi, principal of Urban3, a consulting firm based in enviably hip Asheville, N.C., shared that advice with some 200 Upstate stakeholders at a Ten at the Top forum unveiling the “Shaping Our Future” Growth Analysis Study, which was funded primarily through a grant from the Hollingsworth Funds. The 92-page study, the result of a 10-month effort, examines several scenarios through 2040. Today’s decisions, it says, “will have real impacts on our quality of life—affecting commute times and transportation choices, air and water quality, and our pocket books.” 

“We saw how you all don’t want to be Atlanta or Charlotte,” Minicozzi told political, business, economic development, utilities leaders, and others at the packed BMW Zentrum auditorium in May.

Then he pointed out that if the 10-county area continues on its current trajectory of urban planning and land usage, the nearly doubled population by 2040 would take up an additional 920 square miles—the equivalent of three Charlottes.

“We simply cannot afford to continue growing the way we have been,” says Andrea Cooper, executive director of Upstate Forever. “It is just too costly to support.”

The study examined four scenarios. The first, called Trend, shows how status-quo land use would look in 2040—primarily low-density, single-use development that relies on cars; eats into rural landscapes; and requires infrastructure expansion, namely roads, water, sewer, schools, and so forth.

Three alternate scenarios consider live/play/work communities where residents walk, bicycle, or use public transit. They are:

• Compact Center: A mixed-use, higher-density growth hub.

• Rural Villages: Connected by transit (and roads) and featuring green infrastructure, such as parks and greenways.

• Growth Corridors: Strategic development that reserves land for farms, forests, and open spaces, with targeted investments in premium public transit or limited-access freeways, or both, to connect growth centers.

The study then compares annualized return-on-investment potential for all levels of government in 2040 versus infrastructure and service costs.

By 2040, the Trend scenario projects annual government investments totaling nearly $660 million against expected government receipts of $329 million—a deficit of more than $330 million. The other three alternatives predict more of a balance between expenditures and revenues. Moreover, costs for each scenario come in at approximately half of the Trend projection.

“The return-on-investment analysis, specifically, is what we believe will move many communities to action,” Cooper says.

Anderson Mayor Terence Roberts agrees.  “What keeps me awake at night sometimes is the cost of infrastructure,” he told the forum. “When you look at roads and when you look at aging sewer and water lines, we have to find a way as local governments to pay for this.”

Minicozzi looked at that too, namely in terms of tax “production,” much the way a farmer sees crop yield per acre.

He showed how one building, 18 S. Main St. in downtown Greenville, pays the same in property tax as the multi-acre Shops of Greenridge on Woodruff Road, and how, in Anderson County, the Mellow Mushroom restaurant generates as much in property tax as the Target/Michael’s acreage does.

Similarly, the nearly 20-mile-long Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville delivers an annual economic impact of about $1.9 million per acre. Compare that with the $18,222 property tax Walmart paid in 2016 for 3.12 acres on Wade Hampton Boulevard, according to Greenville County tax records. (One could argue, as Minicozzi did during his presentation, that Walmart also pays millions more in retail sales taxes each year.) Still, as county records show, the Westin Poinsett hotel paid nearly $350,000 in 2016 for its half-acre at 120 S. Main St.

Put another way, Minicozzi says, “[the city of] Greenville takes up about 3 percent of the county’s footprint, yet it produces 19 percent of the county’s wealth.”

As Cooper points out: “A predominance of low-density, sprawling development simply does not generate the revenues needed to support that pattern of development in the long run, and the numbers in the study bear that out.”

The next problem: translating today’s study into tomorrow’s reality.

“That’s the real trick,” says Butch Kirven, Greenville County chairman, who attended the forum and was a member of the project steering committee.

All that data, he says, could help policymakers fashion development and zoning ordinances and tax rates—“a number of different ways to encourage implementation, but the key there is to get public understanding and input upfront; it doesn’t come from the top down.”

Mike Forman, Anderson County’s planning director, echoes Kirven.

“The findings pretty much showed what we’d already been talking about for a while, but it puts it in a way that folks that are voting on this in city councils or county councils will see the benefits,” he says. “It’s something that’s not happening overnight. This isn’t a silver bullet kind of a solution, it’s more along the lines of, let’s fold this line of thinking into our future lines of thinking, our zoning decisions, our policy decisions.”

Data, like that in the study, simply wasn’t available to planners before. “A lot of those decisions were made in the past without information that folks now have,” he says, adding that information-based decisions “build up over time for smart growth.”

Dean Hybl, executive director of Ten at the Top, which coordinated the study in conjunction with Furman University’s Riley Institute, Upstate Forever, and consultants, summed up the future of the future-looking report this way:

“It’s all of our obligations to make sure that this work is not something that five years from now we look back and say, ‘Well, whatever happened to Shaping our Future?’ Make sure the Upstate grows in the manner we want it to be.”