Mindless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. And for many municipalities in South Carolina, its malignancy is becoming a political liability as well as a governmental one.
Annexation issues are front-and-center in the upcoming race for mayor of Easley, South Carolina, an erstwhile small town located in Pickens County in the Palmetto Upstate. Over the past decade, Easley has embarked on an annexation spree which has fueled significant population growth – and padded the pockets of those who manage its taxpayer-funded bureaucracies and public utilities.
The problem? Local leaders – many of whom have been driving around town in brand new Chevy Tahoes – seem more focused on raking in the spoils of this development than on managing it responsibly. As a result, vital services are being stretched past the breaking point – while hidden costs are being passed on to taxpayers and homeowners at a time when they can least afford to shoulder any new burdens.
“With unmitigated and unregulated growth on the rise, the people need to ask themselves who benefits the most from these developments being built and these properties being annexed into the city,” one critic of the current city leadership told me.
At last count, Easley was home to 24,155 citizens – a population increase of 21 percent in just over a decade. A massive developmental boon has been underway over the last three-and-a-half years, with an estimated 2,500 new residential units approved by city leaders since 2020, according to city records.
The cost of this expansion is staggering – on multiple fronts.
Impact fees on these new developments amount to $3,340 per single family unit, according to a new fee schedule approved by city leaders two years ago. Initially paid by developers, these costly levies are baked into the cake of sales and rental agreements – meaning the cost is ultimately passed down to homeowners and tenants.
Higher home prices and rents aren’t the only consequence of the annexation orgy, though. There’s a fundamental lack of competitiveness driving up other costs, too.
Incumbent Easley mayor Butch Womack is a huge proponent of the mindless growth. He cast his vote in favor of the impact fees two years ago, and has steadfastly championed the addition of new housing units to the city. Womack is also a leading supporter of a controversial government-maintained water, sewer and power monopoly.
Earlier this year, Womack affixed his signature to a new intergovernmental agreement which requires Easley to purchase all of its water, sewer and electricity services from Easley Combined Utilities (ECU). Not only that, the agreement obligated the city to deny “any other person or entity the right to provide water, sewer, or electricity services within the city limits of Easley.”
Seeing the outlines of this scam? It’s a city-driven monopoly – one both the city and the utility are intent on expanding.
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Just to make sure there was no confusion as to the objective of this ongoing land grab, ECU vowed in its latest agreement (.pdf) with the city “to not furnish electricity, water or sewer service to any residence, business or industry which is located on property contiguous to the boundaries of the city of Easley without the owner of the property first filing a petition for annexation into the Easley city limits.”
In other words, “be annexed, or else.”
Womack signed the latest iteration of this agreement in February of this year, which not only cemented the self-perpetuating monopoly but is also likely to expose city taxpayers to new debt at the behest of the utility. Specifically, the agreement obliged city government to “consider (the) enactment of any bond ordinance as ECU may, from time to time, request the city council to enact.”
His top opponent in next month’s race, businessman David Cox, is campaigning against excessive annexation – vowing to “stop (the) over-development of Easley and implement responsible growth policy.”
“Annexation shouldn’t be rammed down your throat,” Cox said at a recent mayoral debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Pickens and Oconee counties.
Earlier this month, Cox campaigned on a busy highway in Easley – a thoroughfare where residents have “expressed their frustration and apprehension about the surge in traffic mainly attributed to new housing developments.”
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Citing the marked increase in accidents and congestion, Cox urged passing motorists to “take a stand against overdevelopment.”
A third candidate in the race – Lisa Talbot – claims to support “smart and responsible growth” for the community, however she failed to show up for two scheduled debates and appears to be woefully unqualified for the post.
As voters get ready to go to the polls, they are clearly waking up to the threat this ongoing, reckless overdevelopment is posing to their community.
“What is happening in Easley is not progress,” one resident told reporter Chloe Salsameda of WSPA TV-7 (CBS – Greenville/ Spartanburg) earlier this year. “It is a nightmare. Enough is enough. No one wants more development in Easley. I have had several people tell me they plan to sell their homes and move out of Easley because they can’t stand to live here anymore.”
We are also informed several members of the S.C. General Assembly are looking at the current situation in Pickens County as a case study in mindless growth – prompting them to revisit state laws governing municipal annexation authority.
Easley holds its mayoral election on Tuesday, November 7, 2023. Early voting in that race – and municipal elections across the state – begins next Monday (October 23, 2023) and runs through Friday, November 3, 2023.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
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