Developers circling around last 1,500 undeveloped acres in Carolina Forest

sjones@thesunnews.comJuly 13, 2014 

More and more developers are circling around the last 1,500 acres of undeveloped land in Carolina Forest, and the possibility grows daily that the Grand Strand will get a clear picture of what the bustling area will look like at build-out.

The remaining 1,491 acres are available in four parcels ranging from 200 acres to 516 acres and from residential to commercial in use.

Stepped-up marketing of the property is not widely known around Horry County, but some who hear about it predict there could be a growth spurt soon as developers seek to build ahead of the expiration of a 20-year development agreement with Horry County.

Others say more growth can only increase the pressure for better roads in Carolina Forest and connections to the rest of the Grand Strand, more attention to schools the increased population will need and the significant and growing political power to get the roads and the schools its residents want.

Between 2000 and 2010, according to figures from SiteTech Systems, growth in Carolina Forest accounted to 23.3 percent of the countywide growth, or 16,904 people.

Most of that would have come before the 2008 stock market crash, meaning the significant growth was compressed into even fewer years.

“A lot of leaders were caught off guard by how fast Carolina Forest was growing,” said Bo Ives, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association.

A former urban planner, Ives said Carolina Forest suffers from a lack of connectivity between its many subdivisions and dearth of parallel roads, both of which would ease the traffic pressure on Carolina Forest Boulevard and River Oaks Drive.

But thinking that improvements of current roads and a four-lane extension of International Boulevard to S.C. 90 will solve the area’s traffic problems might be too narrow a vision.

“Everything has a domino effect,” Ives said.

For instance, the International Boulevard extension will increase the need for improvements to S.C. 90 just as a more populous Carolina Forest will make an efficient link to U.S. 501 even more important.

Thousands of new homes

The property that Joe Garrell, a managing member of LandBank, has to sell includes space for thousands of new homes. The available property includes parcels along Carolina Forest Boulevard, a large commercial parcel near the current end of International Boulevard and land that borders the Intracoastal Waterway along River Oaks Drive.

Garrell is most excited about the possibility for a residential development he’s calling The Villages at Huger Park, where 476 acres are zoned residential and another 40 acres mixed use.

The land includes a stand of live oak trees that Garrell wants to make the centerpiece of a historical-themed park built around Revolutionary War Gen. Isaac Huger (pronounced U-gee), who served alongside Col. Peter Horry, the county’s namesake.

In another part of the as-yet undeveloped land, Garrell said there is interest from a developer to build a “new entertainment concept.”

Garrell said there is property among the available parcels for a major shopping area he described as being like the shopping areas bordering U.S. 17 on the Mount Pleasant side of Charleston.

Garrell is president of Litus Properties, which is marketing the four parcels domestically and is managing director of Sperry Van Ness, which is handling international marketing.

Andrew Vicens, an investment adviser with Sperry Van Ness, said the company began its overseas campaign two months ago and has already heard from interested buyers. At the head of the list now, he said, is a Canadian developer that he didn’t want to name, but he said there have also been Chinese and other foreigner buyers looking as well.

The land is being marketed in a brochure as the fastest-growing area of the East Coast’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, an angle Vicens said catches the attention of non-U.S. buyers.

A brochure developed for international buyers says that all 1,491 acres can be had for $90,888,000.

“Foreign buyers will generally bring a higher price,” Garrell said, and he specifically included Russians among those who could snap up some land.

School pressured by growth

Joe DeFeo, chairman of the Horry County school board, said that the development’s new population could hold surprises for school officials, but added the district owns property and has options on other parcels where other schools can be built.

He said the Carolina Forest traffic situation also affects the ability of school buses to easily maneuver around the subdivisions as well as delaying and inconveniencing drivers who get caught behind them.

The school district has plans to build a new middle school in Carolina Forest, and DeFeo said that he believes that even with new growth, just one additional new school in the next five years could serve the area.

Population projection, though, is an exact science, and DeFeo called the district’s 10-year projections a “what-if” look and said that five-year projections are pretty good. But it’s the two-year and three-year projections that are solid enough to lock in construction.

DeFeo admitted that areas less-politically astute than Carolina Forest may have found their children bused to a school outside the development with unused classrooms to ease the overcrowding that hit Ocean Bay Middle School.

In that situation, the district staff recommended busing Carolina Forest students to Blackwater Middle School, but parental outcry shelved that idea in favor of the new middle school.

DeFeo said the new Carolina Forest middle school would have been needed eventually, and a redrawing of attendance lines makes better use of the space at Blackwater.

The overcrowding of Ocean Bay and the size of the other schools serving Carolina Forest underscore the pace of past growth.

Ocean Bay, with 1,204 students last year, is Horry County’s largest middle school. Carolina Forest High School, with 2,072 students, is the largest high school and Carolina Forest Elementary School is just 13 students shy of being the biggest in Horry.

It’s impossible to say just how many more K-12 students and how many more vehicles will arrive in Carolina Forest as its remaining land is developed.

The early days

LandBank was the largest land buyer in Carolina Forest and already has sold 1,500 acres for $180 million, Garrell said.

He was first enticed to buy land along the Intracoastal Waterway by talk of legislation allowing for a waterway casino.

“People thought I was crazy,” he said, because there was nothing there at the time to support even the idea of homes.

He said he tried to get Myrtle Beach to annex the land, and that didn’t happen either.

But he and his partners, he said, “kept buying land in advance of the market.”

Former Horry County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said she wishes Horry County had been able to get more concessions from International Paper as the two were negotiating the development agreement for Carolina Forest.

“There was great pressure to do it,” she said of the agreement.

IP gave Horry County the land to build S.C. 31 along Carolina Forest’s eastern border as part of the agreement.

Among the concessions Gilland and others believe would have served the area best was a requirement that Carolina Forest Boulevard be four-laned. She said the agreement secured two lanes of pavement with enough adjoining land reserved for eventual four-laning.

Ride III

Gilland and Ives hope the area’s road needs can be addressed in a Ride III referendum. Ives is a member of the committee that will draw up the road improvements to be targeted in Ride III, and he said he’ll advocate for the needs of his community.

Gilland would still like to see Carolina Forest incorporate as its own city, but realizes the chance of that is not good.

“It’s going to be another unincorporated area,” she conceded, “but at least it’s not going to look like Socastee,” which developed without a strict plan like Carolina Forest has.

Gilland and Garrell believe that a strong civic association will help to guide Carolina Forest as a united entity.

“We are certainly putting a lot of hope in Ride III,” said Janet Carter, director of Horry County’s planning and zoning department.

She said she can’t confirm the Carolina Forest’s current estimated population of 22,000, mostly because it has grown so fast.

“We lost count of the rooftops out there a long time ago,” she said.

At build-out, the original plan envisioned 50,000 residents in Carolina Forest.

That is a major metropolitan area to some, a major shopping area to others, a major political force to still others.

But to all, it will surely be a major mover and shaker.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765 or on Twitter @TSN_sjones.

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