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Completion of I 526 will not create "urban sprawl"

But changes to existing zoning regulations will
G. Robert George, P.L.S., P.E. Councilmember District-12 City of Charleston

Strict enforcement of Zoning - The Best "Urban Sprawl" Defense
Zoning, like police and fire protection, is a basic function of local government. It is the primary tool cities and counties use to implement land use planning objectives. Zoning decisions by local elected officials become the "blue print" for land development and dictate, to a great degree, the magnitude and sources of property taxes and other revenue generated by local municipalities, county government and public schools.

Recently, there have been several newspaper articles and "letters to the editor" about future growth in West Ashley and on James and Johns Islands. Much of this attention has been directed to the perceived exacerbation of urban sprawl, which, some contend, will result from the completion of I-526 from US-17 to Folly Road on James Island.

New highways do not cause sprawl but poor zoning choices do. The lack of public will to stand firm in the face of pressure to increase density, not I-526, will generate sprawl in these three areas. Under current zoning, both within and beyond the Urban Growth Boundary, over 10,000 new residential units are planned and will be constructed west of the Ashley River, most within the next decade.. Provided current zoning and development densities remain unchanged, the completion of I-526 should have minimal effect upon the total number of residential units ultimately built. However, its completion will have a dramatic effect upon our ability to safely and conveniently travel throughout all of greater Charleston west of the Ashley River.

Many opponents of the completion of I-526 point to the two new fixed span bridges recently constructed over the Stono River and claim these are adequate to support the expected growth of traffic. Others claim that the new Maybank Highway Bridge should have been constructed a mile further south as a key component to complete I-526 and eliminate the need for two expensive bridges in close proximity to each other. This particular argument ignores the very high daily traffic volumes on Folly and Maybank between the Wappoo and Stono Bridges. Without the Maybank Bridge, and only a single, more southern connection between James and Johns Islands, tens of thousands of vehicles would have to travel further south on Folly to access I-526 before traveling to Johns, Kiawah, Seabrook and Wadmalaw Islands. This would greatly exacerbate already serious traffic congestion on Folly Road north of Camp Road. Both the recently completed BCD COG Regional Traffic Analysis and earlier James Island Traffic Study demonstrate the continued need for the Maybank Highway Bridge while supporting the completion of I-526.

Given only current zoning and planned growth that will occur, who will benefit from completing I-526? All of us - with a safer, more efficient arterial transportation network. We will have more, and, for many, shorter commuting options. Savings in non-productive travel time and less energy consumption from reduced fuel use will benefit our economy, preserve our resources and improve our overall quality-of-life.

The completion of I-526 will allow more direct, quicker commuting options for neighborhoods now dependent upon the Glenn McConnell Expressway, Savannah Highway and Ashley River Road and those who reside on the Barrier and Sea Islands southwest of the Peninsula. A new critically needed direct hurricane evacuation route will also be available to US-17 and SC-61. This remaining section of I-526 will also differ from all other existing sections in one major aspect; it will remain essentially free of port-related heavy truck traffic.

What is essential to ensure maximum benefit from the completion of I-526 while minimizing future Urban Sprawl precipitated by its construction? Our elected local officials must have the courage, stamina and integrity to stand fast against future rezoning pressures. Both current zonings and the Urban Growth Boundary must be preserved if we are to minimize undesirable growth related impacts upon our quality-of-life and maximize the benefit of future roadway infrastructure improvements.

Your Comments:

Thank you for taking the time to explain your views on this contentious issues. I wish other council members would thoroughly outline their ideas on important matters thay may come up before council.

However, I have to play devil's advocate here. While I personally believe the Mark Clark extension will have some positive benefits insofar as it makes Charleston more interconnected, I also believe that your case that zoning will protect us from urban sprawl would be a lot easier to make if you could point to _any_ instance when local governments have made a unwielding stand against over-development. Instead, we Charlestonians have only seen major highway projects followed by bouts of gluttonous, ill-conceived building. In fact, today, developers don't even try to hide their confidence. They believe they can still get their way, even in the new climate of concern over urban sprawl. Until they get the word that the days of government bending over backwards to hand out zoning variances is over, I doubt the average citizen will, and you will always face resistance when you risk turning rural areas into a new Mt. Pleasant.

Zoning is the logical way to control growth, I agree. I also think your own personal intentions are honorable. In the past month, the planning committee has voted down two proposed developments on James Island. This appears to be a step in the right direction, yet I believe local governments will have to establish a much longer track record of standing firm against urban sprawl. Then, when you say that zoning will protect us against unwanted development, you'll actually be able to back it up with past results.


Lee Grayson

Posted by: Lee from Wagener Terrace at October 24, 2005 02:26 PM

Zoning is a contentious issue, I agree. But, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. George and Lee. Urban sprawl, by definition, connotes the extension of urban areas into rural areas. It does not relate to higher density zoning in areas that are already considered urban. Some urban planners, like the folks in the City's Planning Department, are encouraging higher density in the city as a counter-measure to endless large scale development on the edges of our metropolitan areas. If we don't let higher density development occur within the city's boundaries, development will continue to encroach on our rural lands. People are coming to our beautiful city, and we cannot stop them. They need housing. We can develop more housing closer to the city's center, or we can further burden the roads and highways further out.

Posted by: Addison Ingle at October 25, 2005 02:57 PM

I completely agree that building high/medium density housing near the city center is a healthy way to deal with population growth. Dense, mixed-use development is a central tenent of New Urbanism, a school of thought which contains many good ideas on how we can grow in the future while improving, not damaging, our way of life.
However, extending I-526 would be far more likely to increase sprawl in rural areas than it would to increase density in areas already considered urban. If by "urban area," you mean the largely undeveloped parts of Johns Island that are designated "urban" under the city's Comprehensive Plan, then I would still agree with you. I think the Plan is a fine compromise, as long as it is strictly enforced.

Which brings me to my next point. To Mr. George, I'd like to say that the more I think about your post, the angrier I get. Not at you personally, but at the various civic "councils" we have around here. A few years ago, I would have felt reassured and optimistic after reading your post. Many politicians were saying things very similar to what you've said here, and I never failed to feel afterwards that finally, our leaders are getting serious about stopping unwanted development. However, since then, our various councils have continued to make mostly poor decisions on new development, both in terms of quantity and quality.

I know you have been something of a voice in the wilderness on these issues, but still, the majority of your fellow councilmembers side with developers first and foremost. Yes, the votes are getting closer, and that is something to be somewhat optimistic about, but until our civic councils begin to show a solid track record of standing firm against over-development, it would be foolish to take your assurances to heart. In the words of The Who: I won't be fooled again.

Posted by: Lee from Wagener Terrace at October 26, 2005 04:25 PM

To: Lee & Addison

Sorry for the tardy response, but I've been busy of late.

Whenever a major, high capacity arterial roadway is constructed, there is always the real danger of "induced congestion" as a technical explanation or "build it and they will come" in laymans terms; either way the danger is just as real. Typically, immmediately after construction, there is a period where the new roadway operates well under design capacity, but after a decade or so the level-of-service starts to slip toward D or E. The James Island Expressway is a classic example.

Given the recent news that the Tri-county can expect at least 113,000 new homes in the next two decades, there is no easy answer. I contend that without the completion of I-526, life around here will be "hell on earth". We are not going to stop growth, but we can control it - proper zoning and regional land use planning is key to maintaining our quality-of-life near its current level.

Given only the realistic cards on the table, what's your idea to solve the current problems we now face? I'm all ears.


Posted by: Bob George at December 7, 2005 10:29 PM

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