Jewish World Review July 21, 2004 / 3 Menachem-Av, 5764
South being invaded again and the losses are mounting
GREENVILLE, S.C. Sherman's army didn't wreck a fraction of the American South being pillaged daily by the big-box store advance. Here in South Carolina's upcountry, the march of Wal-Marts, Targets and the rest are laying waste to 33 acres a day. Hills that nurtured peach trees for generations are buried under yet another Lowe's Home Improvement Center. A new subdivision obliterates all memory of what was a beloved vista.
Longtime residents in the Greenville-Spartanburg area talk of houses popping up from nowhere as though they were foreign invaders. They despair at bulldozers turning prime farmland into big-box moonscapes and at the traffic congestion that follows the creeping ugliness. What was an eight-minute drive to church now takes 20 minutes.
A statewide poll conducted by the University of South Carolina showed that growth is now the number one issue, ahead of education. The people know there's a problem.
But while Americans in other sprawl-prone regions may share these concerns and act, Southerners are paralyzed by their conservative ideology. "Zoning" is a bad word around these parts. When alarmed citizens bring up land-use planning, developers speak darkly of government bureaucrats stomping on property rights. Besides, a new Costco means lower property taxes.
Brad Wyche has to deal with this mentality all the time. He is executive director of Upstate Forever, a group advocating "sensible growth" policies in this part of South Carolina. Wyche recalls attending a public meeting on ways to protect the gorgeous Blue Ridge area from rapid development. There was a form to fill out, Wyche recalls, and one couple wrote at the bottom: "We love the Blue Ridge area as it is. We don't want zoning. Please leave us alone."
"They are trying to have it both ways," Wyche complains. "That attitude is pervasive in the whole South."
If people in these parts are ever going to take a stand, they had better do it fast. Population is booming in this region, and the sprawl is growing five to seven times faster.
Sherman's Union soldiers had to follow country roads. The developers have Interstate 85. Some demographers see the I-85 corridor from Richmond, Va., to Atlanta becoming one big megalopolis. Four of the five most sprawling metro areas in the nation, according to Smart Growth America, lie along this stretch of highway. (They are Greensboro-Winston-Salem and Raleigh-Durham, in North Carolina; Atlanta; and Greenville-Spartanburg, in South Carolina.)
Environmentalists call for federal programs to fight sprawl. But the developers want matters of land-use planning sent down, down, down to the lowest level of government. Real-estate interests know they can have their way with weak local officials. South Carolina is one of the few states that doesn't have a state land-use commission, and that's the way the developers like it.
"Since there's no statewide effort, it's easy to pick off these local governments one by one," says Dell Isham, director of the Sierra Club's South Carolina Chapter.
Sprawl is one of the biggest sleeper issues in American politics. As more citizens fume in snarled traffic (their lifestyle choice, according to the pro-growth crowd), a light may go on in their heads that says this didn't have to be. When it does, their anger will turn most likely on Republicans. Nowadays, Republicans who call themselves conservatives oppose all efforts to control sprawl. Some even hail the tide of development as evidence of economic dynamism.
The Rocky Mountain region, a conservative stronghold, shows signs of growing irritation with Republican enemies of land-use planning. John Hereford, a Republican businessman in Colorado, recently warned that break-neck sprawl could have political consequences for his party.
"Whether they (land-use issues) become a defining element in the current election cycle is unclear," Hereford wrote recently in The Denver Post, "but a growing number of moderate Republicans and independents are clearly frustrated with the way the GOP is perceived and how it allows itself to be perceived on critical issues of open space, clean water and land-use planning,"
In this part of South Carolina, there's still a "real disconnect" between the growing concern over uncontrolled development and the mindset of local politicians, according to Wyche. But he sees their attitudes beginning to slowly change.
Politicians deaf to the sound of the voters' breaking hearts have no idea how the sprawl issue could come back to bite them.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, The Providence Journal Co.
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