Many who drive on Corley Mill Road love the beauty and serenity created by the route’s seemingly endless trees.
“It’s just like going through a tunnel with the canopy of trees,” said Tom Kleckley, 86.
But he and others worry that the road, which stretches from the Lake Murray dam to U.S. 378, is in danger of becoming Lexington County’s lost scenic corridor. Trees and other landscape that line the road along the south side of the lower Saluda River are starting to disappear as more homes sprout.
The change is what longtime resident Kleckley dreaded as suburbia spreads into the area and pokes holes in the tree line that has long been Corley Mill’s hallmark.
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“Something has got to be done to protect it,” he said.
Some residents feared the road would suffer a gradual loss of woods after Lexington 1 decided in 2008 to build River Bluff High School on the road. As expected, the new high school in popular Lexington 1 made the road attractive for new neighborhoods.
School officials saved several towering trees on the campus, but they don’t control what is built elsewhere on the road.
“We saved everything we could,” Lexington 1 spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill said. “We cut only what was needed for sight lines and other requirements.”
River Bluff “definitely was the catalyst” for the threat to trees, said Casey Covell, owner of Wintergreen Woods banquet facility, located about halfway on the five-mile road.
Concern is growing that loss of landscape will accelerate.
More trees will fall as a complex with 300 apartments, 200 homes, a 100-unit senior living center, and a half-dozen offices and stores rises across from the high school during the next four years.
New trees will be planted by the developers but they will be fewer and smaller. It will take generations for the new trees to grow as large as those being cut down.
Another project is expected to thin Corley Mill’s forests further. A new road that will split off Corley Mill and cross I-20 will take out many trees. The new road is intended to ease traffic congestion.
In addition, Lexington town officials are receiving inquiries from builders interested in putting another 1,500 homes along the road.
County Councilwoman Erin Long Bergeson of Chapin cited what’s happening on Corley Mill as a prime reason for her proposal to require developers to leave landscaped buffers around subdivisions and businesses.
She described the road as “not so scenic anymore.”
Many of the trees were lost when the road was widened to provide access for new neighborhoods, according to Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina. And more were removed when terrain was reshaped to better manage stormwater and to prevent erosion.
“It’s not that builders don’t want trees,” McLeod said. “It’s a consequence of those requirements.”
While some local residents are concerned, homebuilder Andy White said the road still maintains its scenic appeal and will for years.
Rapid development along the road will be stymied by the high costs for sewers and new roads along with restrictions on what can be put near the river, said White, who is building two neighborhoods with 700 total homes.
“The economics of building along Corley Mill are so difficult,” he said.
County development standards require 50-foot buffers of trees and landscape along Corley Mill but don’t protect greenery otherwise unless it is along a stream.
Town officials may require even more landscaping. “We’re concerned about that and working to come up with ways to help save trees and more,” Mayor Steve MacDougall said.
County Councilman Darrell Hudson of Lexington wants to make sure county and town standards mirror each other to help preserve much of Corley Mill’s remaining landscape. “It breaks my heart to see what’s been done,” he said.
The County Planning Commission will look shortly at updating rules for developing scenic corridors “to help with some of the concerns” about tree loss, said White, who is the commission’s chairman.
More protection for trees can’t come too soon for Covell, whose family saved several around the business it has operated for 24 years.
“The canopy that was so distinctive is slowly but surely disappearing,” he said. “Corley Mill is in danger of becoming another traditional commercial corridor.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483