What would a growing Horry County look like without a planning and zoning department?

Horry County’s population is expected to double in the next 20 years. A growth in population means more homes, roads and businesses need to accommodate all the new people. Horry County Planning Director David Schwerd is at the helm of the department reviewing the physical and cultural impacts of this growth. This article was edited for space and clarity.

The Sun News: If someone wants to stop all growth, what are the limitations your office has to allow or not allow a development to go forward?

David Schwerd: When we review a development, the only way we could stop development is if it is not zoned properly or if the development plans do not meet the requirements of the land development regulations in terms of lot size, storm water, engineering and access management. If they meet all those standards, we cannot stop them from developing just because someone lives next to woods or a field, and they always want it to be woods or a field. We don’t have the ability to stop it.

The other thing is Horry County doesn’t really regulate wetlands. Over the years, it’s been discussed several times, but really it’s regulated by the state of South Carolina and the Army Corps of Engineers. So Horry County has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to that.

With other regulatory agencies already charged with protecting those, we don’t approve any development without receiving their permits, but we don’t actively create additional buffers around those. But what we do is we make sure if someone is filling in a wetland they have the proper permits from the Army Corps and the state. We don’t have the authority to say ‘you can’t do it’ under the current rules. So as long as they meet the current regulatory requirements, regulations and stormwater ordinance, we don’t have the ability to say no you can’t locate here.

Contractors work on new homes under construction at Bridgewater off Hwy 9 in Little River. New homes and apartments are being built across Horry County to accommodate an expected 500,000 thousands residents by the year 2040. Apr 28, 2019. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

TSN: What if people lobbied for this department not to exist. How would development change in Horry County?

DS: The county was only zoned recently in 2001. The fear of what would be developed here was one of the reasons it ended up getting zoned. The development intensity we saw in the eastern part of the county, there was demand for landfill space. A lot of people in the rural parts did not want that coming to their back doors. So that’s one of the triggers that led to the countywide zoning. It always sounds good ‘I always want to do what I want on my own property’ but then what happens — your neighbor starts developing on their property and it creates a nuisance on your property. That is where zoning comes into play.

As far as the planning part, those who think no planning is going on really haven’t taken the time to come to the planning department to meet or get involved or see the efforts we’re doing. Without planning, then what we need to do is close down Highway 22, 31 and any of the other road improvements that happened over the last 15 years with the same number of people. Because none of those improvements would happen without planning.

And every subdivision that has two entrances, we will close one and you would see that impact. Really the department has expanded the technical capacity and our planning expertise over the last 15 to 20 years. The regulations have continued to strengthen. We do have areas that have traffic problems, and we’re never going to deny that. But every major city has that. Any areas in the country that has a significant population has traffic and congestion. In fact, a certain amount of traffic and congestion is required to have successful business districts.

So the fact we have as little traffic problems as we have here, I think is a testament to the planning. It’s not just we have traffic issues on 501, yes, the traffic problems on 501 would be significantly worse if we didn’t have planning. We wouldn’t have Highway 22 as an alternate, you wouldn’t have wider roads on Highway 9, you wouldn’t have improvements on Highway 31. So yeah, it would be even worse. The growth wouldn’t have stopped with planning, the problems would have been magnified without planning. People will move to the area with or without planning.

Trucks loaded with road building materials roll past wetlands off the new section of International Drive. Jan. 23, 2018. JASON LEE jlee@thesunnews.com

TSN: With the rapid growth in population, how does your department work to accommodate all the new people?

DS: I think the often quoted statistic is we will double in population, which is what we’ve been doing. In 1994, there was 150,000 people and now there are 344,000 people. We expect that to continue. Right now, based on the rezonings and the conceptual plans we have out there, we still probably need double of what he have planned in terms of housing units.

How we build is what we’re looking at now with Imagine 2040. Do we continue the same development patterns we’ve always had, single-family lots, whether they’re 6,000-, 7,000- or 10,000-square-feet lots? You’re still going to have to house a lot of people, so 10,000-square-feet lots is not the answer. The question is — do you want to continue to allow development to occur in the areas where you have issues with public safety or areas where traffic is going to have to funnel to limited roads? Or do you want to incentivize development to occur in areas where that infrastructure already exists. Imagine 2040 recommends we focus that development on the eastern part of the county because if we continue to develop west of the river or near the river you have issues of flooding, issues with traffic, because there is a certain amount of capacity you have to build on. It is easier to expand public safety buildings and hospitals than it is to build new ones.

And you need a certain level of density before other things start to kick in. Imagine 2040 tries to recommend development to incur so we start building vertically or at least more densely in the eastern part of the county to handle so many units. So that things like public transportation becomes more affordable and realizable. Those kind of urban services, when you’re talking about half-a-million people in 2040, when you’re getting to that size you need to start talking about vertical construction, having a density of population to support where people can walk to work, stores or restaurants. It’s a change, people move here expecting it to all be single-family houses, but if we continue to build just single-family, that’s all we’re going to attract and we will have sprawl, very expensive improvements. Widening Highway 90 is a lot more expensive than widening sidewalks in an urban area. So it’s a balance of ‘I want my peace and quiet next to these woods” versus “I want to be able to walk to services.”

People often say ‘I wish a Trader Joe’s was coming in.’ They don’t talk about the traffic coming in from new commercial. People associated brand names with something good or bad, but they don’t associate it with the traffic.

TSN: Are you hinting we’re getting a Trader Joe’s?

DS: No, but we always get that call. The community wanting, getting excited about new commercial services. But commercial services are going where there are people to buy things. You don’t have new residential commercial without residential populations. For example, people in Loris for 20 years have asked when a Walmart is going to open, but there just isn’t enough people there yet. So what do you want, do you want the commercial services? So how are they going to justify coming there if you don’t have the residential component? You have to have a balance of the two, but I think that gets lost in the desire for new commercial.