The Richland County Transportation Penny Program is paving the way for more public access to green spaces and the conservation of hundreds of acres of wetlands and other natural habitats.
The County recently purchased a large tract of property in Lower Richland to maintain the ecological balance and character of its “rich land” as momentum builds under the penny program. Preserving or restoring natural habitats in advance of penny projects allows related road construction to move forward more quickly by avoiding unnecessary delays in obtaining permits from state or federal authorities.
“This is another way the penny program is working for residents,” said Richland County Council Chairman Torrey Rush.
The Transportation Penny Program was approved by voters in November 2012 and includes projects throughout Richland County during a period of 22 years or until a total of $1.07 billion in sales tax revenue is collected, whichever occurs first. The program includes a wide range of projects, such as road widenings, intersection improvements, sidewalks, bikeways, dirt road paving and greenways.
In 2014, County officials conserved more than 2,300 acres of undeveloped land in Lower Richland where the properties, among other things, will provide more vital green space and offer greater opportunities for outdoor activities. Richland’s preservation efforts also may aid development efforts in adjacent counties where officials need to compensate for the loss of natural habitats.
“These properties are an investment in Richland County’s economic growth that will provide dividends to residents through cost savings, protection of natural resources and improved recreational opportunities,” Rush said. “The acquisition of these tracts of land will pay off for generations to come.”
The properties the County purchased include Mill Creek, a 1,750-acre tract along the Congaree River. The Mill Creek property was bought with penny funds to offset impacts from penny projects.
“County Council decided to purchase the Mill Creek property to provide required compensation for penny project construction impacts and additional public access to the Congaree River and surrounding floodplain wetlands,” said Quinton Epps, director of the Richland County Conservation Department. “This was a proactive step to preserve the rural character of the County and prevent delays to penny projects, while protecting our natural resources.”
Opportunities to acquire land to mitigate, or lessen, the impact of development are scarce in the Midlands. However, conservation efforts can be tied to the success of specific transportation projects. For instance, the permitting process is ahead of schedule because of the excellent response and cooperation of the permitting agencies. Once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signs off on conservation plans for the Mill Creek property, the County is expected to save nearly $1 million in the Shop Road extension project.
“The extension of Shop Road will provide access to the new Pineview Industrial Park, a 750-acre Class A industrial park being developed by Richland County,” said Nelson Lindsey, the County’s economic development director.
“Located at the intersection of Pineview and Shop roads, this industrial park is inaccessible to the general public until the extension of Shop Road is completed,” Lindsey said. “At full development, the park could house multiple manufacturers employing several thousand workers.”
In addition to the Mill Creek land bought with penny funds to offset penny projects, the County also purchased another property for conservation efforts. Using a different source of funding, the County acquired the 604-acre Cabin Branch property near the community of Hopkins.
Purchasing the Mill Creek and Cabin Branch properties benefits the County economically by opening the door to increased opportunities for eco-tourism.
The Mill Creek land is full of streams, including the Dead River, which has a concrete dam and retention pond. The dam will be removed to restore the natural flow of water and re-establish the bottomland hardwood forest. The floodplain also will be re-established and the County plans to create public river access and opportunities for hiking, bird watching, biking, fishing and hunting, in conjunction with the mitigation plan.
Cabin Branch is one of several area creeks that flow into Congaree National Park. The property is adjacent to forested land already owned by the County and near properties protected through conservation easements. The Cabin Branch property is vital for the green space it will provide because of its location near a more urbanized area.
“The public will benefit from the nature-based recreational opportunities these lands afford,” Epps said. “And the economic benefits of greenways are clear. We don’t have to look far to see how these types of projects have helped other communities.”
Six years ago, Greenville County opened the Greenville Health System (GHS) Swamp Rabbit Trail, an 18.6-mile, multi-use trail system that’s already become a major economic driver.
“Tourists visiting Greenville County to use the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail leave $6.7 million dollars in our economy every year, money that supports 111 trail-related jobs,” said Ty Houck, the greenways director for Greenville County. “These jobs will never be outsourced and the business of trails is something that will never relocate.”
In Mecklenburg County, N.C., Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek Greenway is a key driver for drawing residents and visitors downtown. The County spent $11.7 million uncapping Little Sugar Creek – which was hidden under concrete – to establish the greenway.
“It’s a great economic tool,” Charlotte City Councilwoman Patsy Keensy said.
Greenway projects in Richland County are expected to reap similar financial gains for South Carolina’s capital county. Early indications are that some businesses near the Midlands existing greenway projects – such as the Three Rivers Greenway Riverwalk – are experiencing an uptick in revenue.
Chris Kueny, owner of Sub Station II in Cayce, said business at his sandwich shop has grown about 10 percent over last year and he attributes that in part to the greenway bringing in more people looking for a bite to eat after walking, running or biking.
“We benefit from people who come in for lunch or bottled water,” said Kueny, who has been in business at the Knox Abbott location for 15 years. “Showing growth like this is remarkable.”
Comments like these are ringing endorsements for the economic benefits of green spaces in growing communities.
“Richland County has worked diligently to ensure the progression of projects that continue to drive economic development and preserve our natural resources,” Rush said. “Richland County will continue to create an array of opportunities for our residents, visitors and businesses.”