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Balancing Growth and Preservation

by Fred D. Baldwin

South Carolina's Highway 11 climbs into the mountains from the Savannah River Valley, winds east past spectacular views of lakes and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and eases down through forests, hayfields, and peach orchards. Last year the Federal Highway Administration designated the road, whose formal name is the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, a National Scenic Byway, one of just over 50 such roads recognized as "outstanding examples of our nation's beauty, history, culture, and recreation experience."

The present highway, most of which follows roads that followed Cherokee footpaths, was completed over 25 years ago, principally with grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). In 1997 the South Carolina Appalachian Council of Governments (SCACOG) completed the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway Corridor Management Plan, funded with a grant from the National Scenic Byways program and developed with extensive grassroots participation by residents along and near Highway 11. SCACOG, whose overall planning activities are supported by ARC, serves South Carolina's six Appalachian counties (listed west-to-east): Anderson, Oconee, Pickens, Greenville, Spartanburg, and Cherokee. Highway 11 runs through all but Anderson.

The plan is the product of over two years of study and debate, and it describes how its architects hope to cope with the problems of growth. It captures the fears, the ideas, and, it must be added, the ambivalence of the citizens who hammered it out. It attempts to strike a difficult balance between development and preservation of the physical environment.

"What they [the plan's drafters] want," says Cheryl Dean, SCACOG senior planner and project manager for the plan, "is to take the present character of the roadway and develop it like that overall. We don't want the flashing signs you might see at Disney World or Las Vegas. But that's not to say every roof has to have the same pitch. It's a working roadway. There are people who live there."

"Like many other places today," says Wes Cooler, who was a member of a Pickens County task force that worked on the plan, "we're faced with a tremendous spillover from urban sprawl. A lot of that is from Greenville, of course, but it's also from people in Atlanta building second homes. People love it here, and a lot of people want to love it to death. We're very capable of killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

In many respects, the six-county SCACOG area certainly looks golden. Its population has been growing steadily for well over a decade, rising more than 10 percent between 1990 and 1998. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in 1998 averaged 2.8 percent for the area as a whole, ranging from 3.8 percent in Cherokee County to an almost immeasurable 2.0 percent in Greenville County.

In the five counties through which Highway 11 runs, manufacturing jobs account for between 21 percent and 46 percent of employment. The area has plants by BMW, Michelin, Schlumberger, and many other Fortune 500 companies.

There are seven state parks along the highway (most of them near its western end), plus various historical sites, notably Cowpens National Battlefield (in Cherokee County), where in 1781 a cobbled-together coalition of American state militia units routed a much larger force of British regulars whose commander had underestimated the rebels' capacity for acting together when it counted.

The most recent estimates from the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism indicate that tourists spend over $1 billion annually in the six SCACOG counties, creating well over 15,000 tourism-related jobs.

Given all this growth, it may be surprising that so much of the land around Highway 11 has remained unspoiled and beautiful. The corridor management plan includes a map on which a hundred or so short stretches of road on either side of the corridor's length are evaluated by visual impact. Dark green and light green indicate "outstanding" or "scenic" views. Pink means "not scenic," and red means "visual blight." Most of the road shows green with only very small spots of pink or red.

For the most part, Dean says, the manufacturing plants located near the highway are not part of the visual blight. "You can see the sign and you know there's an industry there," Dean says, "but there's a lot of green. They plant things that are characteristic of the area, so they don't have a lot of maintenance. They're developing smart. You see it and don't think, 'What an ugly place.' You think, 'What a nice place to work.' "

Reaching a Consensus

The amount of citizen participation involved in putting together the Highway 11 management plan is impressive. Altogether, SCACOG worked with task forces with representatives from all five county governments, businesspeople, property owners, representatives of planning groups, and others who were simply interested citizens. The groups held 15 or more public meetings. Subcommittees looked at special focus areas such as signage, bike lanes, and litter management. Actual task force membership for some areas included 40 people, and on some occasions as many as 80 people turned out for some meetings. They sought advice from experts at Clemson University and elsewhere on matters ranging from native plant varieties to conservation easements.

The plan, which was endorsed by all county governments as part of the state and federal designation process, reflects a consensus that it's important to preserve the area's assets while encouraging development. Some action items are already moving forward; for example, a new visitors center at Table Rock State Park (in Pickens County) opened in late May. Still and all, how preservation should be accomplished and at whose expense remain matters of controversy.

The corridor plan outlines goals and describes strategies, but it stops short of advocating that county governments adopt any specific land management option. Among the strategies was an option to "set up specific guidelines for new construction." That option became the focus of most disagreements.

Paul Ellis is Greenville's parks and recreation administrator and chairs the South Carolina Scenic Highways Committee. (Highway 11 was a state scenic highway long before its federal designation.) "Most of the rural areas are not zoned," Ellis says. "When you say the 'z' word, property owners get up in arms. There are families that have been there forever. They see new homes coming in. Then they hear the newcomers 'tell us what to do with our land.' "

That's precisely how Michael Atkins sees it. He's a native of the area who operates a family farm and garden equipment business on Highway 11 near Gowensville. He didn't like the way the plan began but thinks it came out reasonably well.

"I like the part where it gives the individual communities the right to decide," Atkins says. "It started out—no matter what you called it—as zoning. I had the sense that some developers were fixing it like they wanted it."

Bill Mason, who owns a half-dozen McDonald's restaurants in Cherokee and neighboring counties (and whose offices are on Highway 11), doesn't necessarily favor zoning that limits the kinds of uses to which property can be put, but he does favor performance standards—things like wider setbacks from the right-of-way, more use of access roads to reduce the number of driveways opening directly onto Highway 11, and requirements for plantings to screen trash cans and other necessary evils. He, like many others, is especially concerned about protecting what planners sometimes call the "viewshed."

"My point is," Mason says, "you only increase the value of your property when you clean it up and make it beautiful. I've never known anyone who's lost money by cleaning up."

So far, none of the county governments involved have adopted land-use regulations of any kind beyond regulation of junkyards (a state requirement for scenic highways) and of signs near the rights-of-way (a requirement for both state and federal scenic designations).

The Long-Term Value of Leadership

Duane Staggs, who lives in Gowensville and has been active in efforts to preserve a historic school there, both participated in the SCACOG-assisted planning process and wrote extensively about it for North Carolina's Tryon Daily Bulletin (whose nameplate reads "The World's Smallest Daily Newspaper"). She says that the planning process was valuable and brought preservation issues into better focus—stimulated by a sense of impending change, notably the sale of much of Glassy Mountain to build an upscale housing development and mountaintop golf course.

"We knew there would be no way to protect the highway," Staggs says, "unless there was grassroots interest—people who live here doing something about it. People here think that mountains belong to us and God. That mountain belonged to people, and when they got ready, they sold it. That was quite a jolt."

A number of others echo Staggs' opinion that SCACOG's leadership has long-term value for the area's development. Ellis, for example, comments that only SCACOG was willing to take the "big view" and get so many participants involved.

Tim Todd, executive director of the Discover Upcountry Carolina Association, an organization that since 1978 (when its formation was assisted by ARC) has been promoting the kind of development that preserves the area's attraction to tourists, agrees: "The key is getting both sides to the same table. Before [the planning process] they didn't talk to each other. They talked about each other."

Robert Strother, SCACOG executive director, says that what's important is the amount of goodwill and commitment the planning process generated. "One of the primary roles of our organization has been to bring people together to identify issues and opportunities that don't stop at county lines. The scenic highway management study brought together a diverse group from five counties to sit down together and clarify important issues. Their single most significant accomplishment was to create a well-informed cadre of leaders who could reach a consensus on the importance of protecting this highway's benefits and to come up with strategies for doing that."

South Carolina Governor James H. Hodges applauds the planning effort: "Everyone along the highway realizes the importance of working together to preserve the beauty of this region. I am convinced that we can strike a balance that preserves the unique character of this region and allows for growth at the same time."

That the Highway 11 management plan deals with real issues, including controversial ones, is likely to keep it from collecting dust on a shelf. The planning process wasn't only about sustaining the area's already strong economic growth or protecting its natural beauty; it was about preserving its citizens' long and fiercely cherished tradition of local independence. In this part of Appalachian South Carolina, there's precedent for a cobbled-together coalition's showing a surprising capacity for acting together when it counts.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.