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February 23rd, 2023
At Upstate Forever, we believe that everyone in the Upstate should have access to clean drinking water, healthy air, and safe green spaces. We believe that the Upstate’s growth should be directed to existing urbanized areas with established supporting infrastructure, and that we must take special care to ensure residents – especially historically marginalized communities of color and those less affluent – are not displaced in the process. Finally, we believe that economic development, while critical, need not come at the expense of natural areas, farms, forests, or current residents’ quality of life.
The Upstate is growing, with more than 300,000 new residents projected by 2040. Where and how that growth takes place will have direct impacts on residents’ quality of life and the region’s natural assets. We all have a stake in how we grow!
Below are the issues we're advocating for in 2023 and the reasons we've chosen to prioritize them.
In 2023, we are monitoring, working to influence, and encouraging community engagement in seven planning and policy initiatives in the Upstate:
City of Greenville – Land Management Ordinance (aka Development Code)
GVL2040 — the City of Greenville’s adopted comprehensive plan recommends directing the majority of growth over the next two decades to nodes and corridors identified throughout the city. A traditional, higher density urban development form in these areas will expand mobility and housing choices, support a more robust public transit system, and generate revenue to achieve the community’s ambitious goals related to affordable housing, mobility, and open space. The plan also recommends thoughtful residential infill to diversify housing stock and create more inclusive neighborhoods. To realize this vision, the city’s new Development Code — a draft of which is anticipated to be released, vetted, and adopted in 2023 — must ensure a new way of growing that is more urban and less suburban in the years ahead. In coordination with advancing the new Code, the city should enact a plan to strategically protect and expand urban greenspace and tree canopy. Finally, the city must take bold and deliberate steps to avoid further displacement of current residents, especially people of color, as the city grows in the years ahead.
Greenville County – Unified Development Ordinance (UDO)
In early 2020, County Council unanimously adopted a widely supported comprehensive plan, which outlines a clear strategy for more fiscally and environmentally responsible growth. The plan directs most new development to the middle part of the county, where infrastructure can support it. To realize this vision, the county is drafting a UDO to replace existing zoning and land development regulations. The new UDO should allow higher density development in already urbanized areas and limit the intensity of development in rural, undeveloped areas where the county’s remaining forests and farmlands exist. The UDO should respect the community’s desire to protect natural assets by strengthening open space requirements, as well as tree canopy and riparian buffer protections. The Reedy River Water Quality Group has been studying the utility and benefits of riparian buffers for 5+ years and has strongly recommended a 100-ft buffer requirement on most streams in Greenville County, consistent with the recommendations of numerous advisory groups and agencies since 2001. Riparian buffers protect drinking water, stabilize streambanks, and preserve critical habitats. Buffers also decrease the intensity and frequency of flooding by containing and absorbing floodwaters naturally, an essential safeguard as the Upstate experiences more frequent and intense rain events due to heavy development and a changing climate. They are also proven to be one of the most cost-effective methods for achieving meaningful water quality protection.
The Upstate’s outstanding quality of life is largely dependent on its blend of vibrant communities and beautiful outdoor places. People are attracted to areas where there is an emphasis on green space protection, historic preservation, and easy access to trails and nature. Not only that, but significant economic benefits result from conservation, and businesses want to locate in areas where conservation is a priority. Local governments can – and should – play a key role in protecting such critical community assets, including allocating funds for such protection. Dedicating local funds to parks, historic preservation, and open space attracts additional state and federal dollars to benefit our community. Local funding also provides an opportunity to address greenspace inequity by adding more parks and public open space in neighborhoods that lack safe and accessible places to enjoy nature. Greenville, Spartanburg, Pickens, and Oconee Counties have established local conservation funding strategies. In 2023, we would like to see those counties increase their commitment to conservation through the allocation of even more local funds for conservation.
Our vision of an environmentally healthy and economically prosperous Upstate cannot be realized without significant transformation in our communities’ mobility options and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. With unprecedented dollars flowing in from the Federal Government to South Carolina through various legislative avenues to support the electrification of the transportation, the successful application and implementation of those funds will require coordination among municipal governments, state agencies, non-profits, community groups, and businesses. To support this effort, we are actively working to facilitate conversations with these stakeholders to identify shared goals, funding mechanisms, and align strategies for residential and commercial participation in electrification efforts. We will continue to advocate for regulatory changes and state funding that facilitates electrification of the transportation sector. Lastly, we will utilize our communications strategies to broaden the base of support for electric vehicles among elected officials, businesses, as well as communities who are traditionally overlooked for these types of investments.
As a result of a changing climate, the Upstate is projected to receive more frequent and intense precipitation and warmer winters. To ensure our diverse natural systems and communities are protected from the anticipated impacts of these changes, we will work to advance policies and programs that support climate resilience, protect water resources, and prioritize community health. In 2023, we will work with coalitions of advocates, business leaders, utilities, elected officials and state agency staff to advance common-sense policy changes through legislation, utility programs, and state agency action.
At the state level, we will work with the SC Office of Resilience and other advocates on the agency’s task force to implement the State Resilience Plan, anticipated to be released in July 2023. Our role will center on implementing policies that benefit Upstate communities (e.g., protections for floodplains, forests, and drinking water, green infrastructure, creative stormwater management, and strategic data coordination). We will use the process as an opportunity to communicate with residents and decision-makers about the importance of prioritizing nature-based solutions and strategic land conservation.
With state legislators focused on creating additional measures to foster economic development, we can expect to see more growth in the Upstate’s cities, surrounding neighborhoods, and rural areas. We will use these conversations to explore thoughtful mechanisms to increase the availability of affordable, workforce housing across the region, including legislation that would allow local jurisdictions to develop requirements for affordable housing in mixed use and residential development proposals.
Parts of the Upstate have borne the consequences of fossil fuel pipelines in the form of leaks and fuel spills, contaminated rivers and drinking water, property loss, harmful emissions, and high energy bills. At the local level, we will continue to act as a watchdog for these impacts and will work with communities disproportionately burdened by fossil fuel pipelines to identify solutions to problematic proposals and provide educational resources with the goal of activating a base of advocates who will speak out for regulatory protections and clean energy options.
At the state level, we will work to advance new regulations proposed at the SC Public Service Commission designed to increase transparency in the construction of natural gas pipelines and use of eminent domain by utilities and pipeline companies.
Our current energy landscape is showing strain, as reflected by intense rate hikes passed along to customers, blackouts for thousands of SC residents, and incoming industries expressing concern over the lack of access to clean energy options. Through direct engagement with energy providers and collaboration with other energy advocacy groups, we will work to hold utilities accountable and promote programs that enable energy efficiency, renewables, and minimize financial burdens to customers. Through our involvement at the Public Service Commission and SC Statehouse, we will advocate for more effective utility regulation, ratepayer protections, investments in clean energy resources, and eminent domain reform.
SC DHEC’s testing of the state’s public water systems in 2020 revealed contamination from toxic ‘forever’ chemicals known as PFAS in almost every source tested, so time is of the essence to mitigate risk to the public. Federal limits on these chemicals in public drinking water systems and hazardous cleanup designations are anticipated in the early part of 2023. Until then, we will continue to work with SC DHEC to prioritize how and where a state-appropriated $10 million dollar emerging contaminants fund should be utilized throughout the state’s drinking water systems. As always, we will continue to serve as a resource for communities exposed to toxic contaminants.
DHEC has proposed changes to regulations that determine how PFAS-contaminated sludge is applied to agricultural lands, the runoff of which contributes major sources of contamination to nearby waterways and drinking water sources. With conservation partners, we will work with DHEC to advance these and other regulation changes designed to protect SC waterways and drinking water.
Access to clean, reliable drinking water is a fundamental right for all people across the Upstate, though some communities, especially those with a high percentage of low-income households, bear the brunt of inadequate water protections. Concurrent with legislative efforts, we will identify communities who have fought for access to clean water and work with them to address ongoing concerns.
Upstate Forever works to safeguard water quality and quantity in the Upstate, which is home to three river basins: Broad, Saluda, and Savannah. Mandated by the State Legislature to ensure we have plentiful water into the future, the new State Water Plan will guide the policy, management, and conservation of the state’s water resources for the next 50 years. Of the eight River Basin Councils (RBC) that will be formed to create regional water management plans, three have been formed and are underway (the Edisto, Broad, and Pee Dee RBCs) and one (the Saluda) has begun the process of forming a council. UF will serve on two of those RBCs – the Broad and Saluda. Additional councils will follow as the legislature appropriates funds. At the current funding rate (i.e., $1.5 million per year), South Carolina will not have an updated State Water Plan for another eight to ten years. We support funding the remaining RBCs at 5.5 million, which has been requested in the 2023 Legislative budget.
The COVID-19 crisis highlighted a clear need for more natural spaces for public recreation, and with the current rate of land development in our state, time is of the essence to make investments in land protection. There is growing support to double the amount of protected land for natural resource protection and to expand opportunities for public access to natural spaces throughout the state.
While there is a growing interest among landowners in land protection, many cannot afford the upfront expenses required to protect their land — fees for appraisals, attorneys, and stewardship endowments, for example. One of the tools we use is funding assistance from the South Carolina Conservation Bank (SCCB). With the current rate of development combined with the clear need for more public recreation land, it is critical that the budget for SCCB grants increase to reflect the expanding interests by landowners, land trusts, municipalities, and other land protection groups. The South Carolina Conservation Enhancement Act (S.280) was pre-filed in December 2022 and would restore a portion of the deed stamp fee to fund the SCCB, expected to bring in tens of millions of dollars to fund the Bank on top of its baseline funding.
We support legislative efforts and the creation of innovative funding mechanisms such as the Conservation Enhancement Act to achieve the ambitious goal of doubling the state’s protected landse Complimenting this legislation is The Trails Tax Credit Bill (H.3121) , which would expand public access to green spaces by providing an income tax credit to property owners who agree to add a voluntary, perpetual trail easement.
Lastly, we support our state agencies’ funding requests to build a robust framework of protected land for natural resource management and economic vitality. The SC Office of Resilience was created to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters while proactively planning to increase the resilience of communities so they can better absorb and recover from severe storms and environmental change. As reported by the Governor’s Floodwater Commission in 2019, strategic land protection is a cost-effective means of protecting communities from severe flooding and other disasters.