Lexington County considers law to crack down on mass home development. Will it work?

The biggest traffic headache in Lexington county. Is there a fix coming?

This road handles 42,000 vehicles a day in a one mile stretch.
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This road handles 42,000 vehicles a day in a one mile stretch.

In some areas of Lexington County, resident say, houses are built so close that neighbors are “on top of each other.”

“You can hock a loogie on the guy next to you without much effort,” said Rusty Koivu, a Lexington real estate agent and resident.

In an effort to alleviate that in some areas, Lexington County Council may limit the number of homes that can be built per acre in some of the county’s fastest-growing communities. The proposed law would create a district, mainly around the town of Lexington, and then limit the number of single-family homes that can be built inside the area from 12 per acre to four per acre. The restriction would only apply to unincorporated areas in the district.

Resident Kimberly Cockrell said she experienced a more cramped lifestyle in Lexington than in Los Angeles, where she used to live. She moved out of a one-way street in Lexington’s Wellesley neighborhood to have more space and she found it in West Columbia, she said.

At her new home, “I can’t see what the next door neighbor is cooking,” she said.

But her concern wasn’t just being close to other neighbors, Cockrell said, it also was the strain it put on emergency services and other basic needs.

Yet even though it may feel like 12 homes are stuck on an acre of land in some areas, county spokesperson Harrison Cahill said that’s not true. There are no single family residential developments with 12 units on one acre in unincorporated Lexington County, he said.

The highest density residential development built in the past five years was 6.72 units per acre, Cahill said.

Lexington County

So the proposed district would not change much, said council member Bobby Keisler, who represents Red Bank and South Congaree.

“If it would be a change from four to two (per acre), we may have something,” he said.

Council member Erin Long Bergeson, who represents Chapin and Irmo, said though the county doesn’t have 12-per-acre developments, it might in a few years.

“I think those may be coming and we don’t know yet,” she said.

Census data shows Lexington County saw a 12.42% increase in population from 2010 to 2018, and a 1.45% bump from 2017 to 2018.

Lexington 1 school district officials estimate more than 500 new students have enrolled every school year since the 1990s. In the 2017-2018 school year, the district grew by 616 students, the district estimated.

Bergeson said the county is in a “sprawling situation” regardless of whether the overlay density district is created, so the proposed change more than anything would alert big home builders.

“If it were to go countywide, it could grab the attention of the development community,” she said.

Bergeson is chair of the county planning committee and said she has discussed with council chair Scott Whetstone the pros and cons of expanding the proposed restriction to the entire county.

Keisler said the main issue county council should be focusing on is improving roads, not limiting construction of homes.

“Until they do that, we’re going to have the same problem.”

Stewart Mungo, the Lexington-raised chairman of Mungo Homes, said the proposed change won’t solve the main issue, which is traffic. He said taxing vehicles might be a more sustainable approach because it could limit traffic and create a much-needed funding source for upgrading infrastructure. Beyond that, Mungo said, the county needs to be proactive about the influx of people instead of reactive.

“Everybody screams about growth but nobody wants to sit down and solve the tough problems,” he said.

Mungo also said home developers are required to meet stringent rules by the state Department of Transportation, and the developers are often told to make road improvements in the area around the homes.

Some realtors and developers say the change will have a negative effect, raising the price of land, making housing less affordable and throwing off school district building plans.

Steve Adams, who spoke on behalf of the South Carolina Landowners Association, said he wasn’t for or against the new district, but residents didn’t get a fair warning or enough time to consider the proposal.

He said residents need certainty about how the change could impact them. Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry Association of South Carolina, echoed Adams, and said he still had many questions for council.

Councilman Darrell Hudson, who is backing the restriction and whose district would be most affected by the change, said it’s about time to “slam the brakes” on rapid development.

Hudson, who has owned a car dealership in Lexington for more than 40 years, said the traffic brought in by new developments is out of hand — and it’s causing businesses to shut down.

He said his dealership, Hudson Brothers, has seen business go down by 17% in the past several years because of rush hour congestion on Sunset Boulevard. The state Department of Transportation reports that more than 33,000 cars a day traveled on Sunset Boulevard near Hudson’s business in 2018.

“After 3 p.m., we might as well go home,” he said.

Lexington town councilman Steve Baker said traffic seems to be the biggest quality of life concern for many people in the area. If it’s not addressed now, he said, it may be too late in the future.

‘I don’t know with certainty that this is the fix, but if we don’t do this, what do we do?” he said.

Baker also suggested, along with several other residents, that county council make the overlay district a countywide rule.

Another resident agreed.

“This is the very least that we should be doing,” she said.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.