How could IL incorporation affect schools and traffic?

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Fact check on IL inc

By Reece Murphy

Scattered throughout Indian Land, the signs are hard to miss since their messages – “Stop school overcrowding” and “Tired of Traffic?” – play on two of the community’s most pressing issues.
Placed by incorporation organizers Voters for a Town of Indian Land (VTIL), the signs offer their own solution printed at the bottom in big bold letters – “Vote Yes.”
Organizers of the No Town of Indian Land (No TOIL) camp disagree, and have their own “Vote No” signs to show it.
As Indian Land residents prepare to vote in an incorporation referendum March 27, many in the burgeoning community, such as Sun City Carolina Lakes residents Lee Layton and his wife, Sandy, are wondering which side is right.
Layton said how incorporation will affect Indian Land’s roads and schools – and the proposed town’s budget – have been topics of conversation lately among the group he and his wife are traveling with now.
“We all have the perception that incorporation won’t have any immediate effect on roads, traffic congestion and schools,” Layton said. “The positive effect may need to come through zoning changes to limit/control growth. Maybe there will be longer-term positive effects, but it will take time. 
“One huge question is who pays to maintain the county roads in an incorporated Indian Land? We’re split 50/50, based on info we’ve reviewed,” he said. “One belief is that the county will still provide the funds to maintain the roads in the new municipality. Just as strong is the other belief that residents in the new municipality will have to pay to maintain the current county roads.”
In this article, part 2 of a series examining issues in the incorporation debate, we look at whether incorporation could significantly influence traffic and schools. We’ll also consider who would be responsible for maintaining the 122 miles of Lancaster County roads in the incorporation area.
Growing enrollment and overcrowding has been an issue at most Indian Land schools for the past several years, a symptom of the community’s explosive growth as thousands of families moved into homes in new neighborhoods built across the northern half of the Panhandle since the mid-2000s.
Indian Land is home to four schools: Indian Land high, middle and elementary schools, and Harrisburg Elementary. The student population at the high school still hovers a bit under full capacity at 1,056. The three other schools are currently over capacity, with Harrisburg Elementary about 300 over at 1,266 students just three years after opening.
Lancaster County School District, which oversees all public schools in the county, including the Indian Land schools, is building two new schools in the Panhandle to ease overcrowding.
Van Wyck Elementary, under construction on U.S. 521 south of Rebound Road, is expected to open in August. A new Indian Land High School to be built five miles south of the existing high school on U.S. 521 between Niven Road and Witherspoon Trail, is expected to open in August 2019.
The school district hopes to further reduce the stress on area schools for several more years after the new high school’s opening by moving seventh- and eighth-graders from the middle school to the former high school building and making the existing middle school an intermediate school for all Panhandle fifth- and sixth-graders.
What they say
On the homepage of its website, www.TownOfIndianLand.org, VTIL says that because Indian Land is the fastest-growing communities in the country, its education funding needs to be spent locally, “not in distant corners of the county.”
The entry goes on to say the current situation for Indian Land schools is unfair and as long as Lancaster County is in control, the community will not have a fair say in how its schools are managed.
On their separate Vote Yes campaign website, Yes4IL.com, VTIL organizers argue even the new schools could be overcrowded within two to three years of opening if the community doesn’t control growth.
Slowing and controlling growth through planning and zoning is a key plank in VTIL’s argument for incorporation.
VTIL organizers blame Lancaster County for the school overcrowding by failing to work with the school district in considering approvals for new Panhandle developments. They say it is common for fast-growing communities to charge rooftop fees for each new home to help schools, and they take the county to task for failing to do so. 
Overall, VTIL organizers argue that a town of Indian Land would be more responsive to the needs of the school district when it comes to Indian Land schools because it would be run by Indian Land residents. VTIL also suggests that incorporation would position the town to break away from the Lancaster County schools if it wanted to create its own Indian Land school district.
“An Indian Land Town Council will give us the voice we need to control growth and coordinate better with those who manage our schools,” VTIL says of schools in its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section. “Additionally, if the community decides that a local school district is something they would like in the future, incorporation is a first step in that direction.”
No TOIL keeps its school argument simple by simply suggesting VTIL is being disingenuous in saying an incorporated Indian Land could do anything about overcrowding in its schools since they’re solely controlled by the school district.
In a downloadable script available on their website, NoTownOf  IndianLand.org, No TOIL organizers point to the new school construction and the Panhandle’s 60 percent share of the school bond revenue as evidence the school district is sufficiently looking out for Indian Land schools’ best interest.
“Lancaster County School District is increasing Indian Land’s school capacity and taking action for our children’s future,” No TOIL says in its presentations against incorporation. “Incorporation will not change Indian Land schools.”
The facts
Though VTIL acknowledges in its FAQs that Indian Land schools will continue to be managed by Lancaster County School District after incorporation, the statement on its main website about the county’s current control of Indian Land fails to mention that even Lancaster County has no say in how schools are managed.
While the group complains that Indian Land school funding money goes to distant parts of the county, the statement also fails to mention that the school district is spending most of a $199 million school bond approved in 2016, more than $121 million in all, to build Indian Land’s two new schools.
Not all of VTIL’s arguments are specious, however.
In an interview Friday, both LCSD Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Phipps and Finance Director Tony Walker conceded that slowing the pace of growth in the Panhandle might help some.
“If it slows down the building, it could very well slow down the growth at the schools,” Phipps said, stressing the school district has no position on Indian Land incorporation. “But it’s one of those things that only time will tell.”
The issue, Walker said, is that there’s no sign of Indian Land development slowing any time soon since many of the development projects in the Panhandle, both those under way and yet to begin, were approved years ago.
He said the school district has seen little benefit over the years from discussions with the county over the impact of development on schools, or the few development agreements that included permit fees for schools on each home built, and certainly not enough for major capital projects.
“We got about $500 for each permit sold out of some of (the permit fees),” Walker said. “It doesn’t make a big impact at all. It’s something the county did – they volunteered to do – to help us out on about four or five projects.
“Out of all those houses up there, we might have gotten about $1 million of it,” he said. “Of course, we’ll take what we can get.”
Impact, or rooftop, fees on new home construction have only recently become an option for schools again in mid-2016 after an amendment to state law reversed a 1999 ban on their use by school districts.
The Fort Mill School District’s impact fee was grandfathered in, making it the only school district in the state to have one for many years, according to The (Charleston) Post and Courier, which said it raised $4.2 million from the fees last year. The school district’s website says its current impact fees are set at $2,500 per home, which it uses to fund new capital projects and reduce the district’s loan debt. The district recently asked York County to raise the fee to $10,000.
Under the new law, impact fees can’t be used for capital projects at existing schools, Walker said. The revenue must be pegged to new capital projects, and still must be requested and approved by the county. Walker said the Fort Mill School District is seeking to bolster its impact fee revenue with a bond referendum in March, since the impact fee wouldn’t likely support a major capital project on its own.
“Ours would have to go through the county. I don’t think they could go through a city,” Walker said. “I imagine just like the county did a $500 permit fee, the (town of Indian Land) could do a fee and designate that it go to the city for schools.”
According to Phipps, Indian Land could move to take over its own schools under an Indian Land School District if it wanted to, but it wouldn’t be cheap, considering all the costs. He said a split from the school district would require a hearing before S.C. Department of Education, and likely the state board of education – and the current atmosphere in Columbia favors school district consolidation,
“I spoke with the governor yesterday and he said the push was to have school districts consolidate,” Phipps said Friday. “So the idea that the Department of Education would allow an area of our county that we already service and are building schools to secede, I just don’t see that happening.”
Arguments on both sides of the issue are overblown to some extent. The hard assertion that incorporation “will not change Indian Land schools” is not completely factual, and though a town of Indian Land could have the ability to affect some change at its schools, any change would likely be far off and limited.
Traffic and roads
Traffic in northern half of the proposed Indian Land incorporation area is served by only one major highway running north and south, U.S. 521 (Charlotte Highway). Only two other major roads run east and west in that area, S.C. 160 (Fort Mill Highway) between U.S. 521 and Fort Mill; and S.C. 75 (Waxhaw Road) between U.S. 521 and Waxhaw. S.C. 5 runs between U.S. 521 and York County at the bottom of the proposed incorporation area.
Other than U.S. 521, only three other highly traveled roads serve the most congested northern part of the community, Harrisburg, Possum Hollow and Henry Harris roads. The area’s other highly traveled east/west roads are Marvin, Jim Wilson and Van Wyck roads.
Most of the community’s roads are maintained by Lancaster County, 122 miles in all, including 22 miles of dirt roads. Most of those county’s roads are in neighborhoods taken into the county system through agreements with Lancaster County.
What they say
VTIL members say increasing traffic congestion on Indian Land’s already overburdened roads is the most common complaint they hear from residents. They say the community’s traffic woes are the result of the Lancaster County’s short-sighted, seemingly unrestricted rubberstamping of development projects over the years that continues to this day.
The group says the first step in dealing with the issue is to slow the rate at which new vehicles are added through planning and zoning regulations and oversight. VTIL also says a town of Indian Land’s planning and zoning and building departments could make developers pay for solutions to road issues through negotiations with town council.
The group says another way the new town could ease traffic is through an incorporated community’s ability “to devote time, energy, lobbying effort and money” to expanding road infrastructure.
“We are confident that there are innovative methods of alleviating this stress (on roads) that the county has either been unable or unwilling to explore,” VTIL said in its feasibility study.
Another major aspect of the roads issue in Indian Land is the question of who would be responsible for road maintenance. VTIL says upkeep of the town of Indian Land’s roads, and the costs, would remain the responsibility of whichever entity has jurisdiction over them now – state or county – since the new town would have no roads of its own.
This claim clashes with Lancaster County’s position that if Indian Land were to incorporate, the municipality would be responsible for maintaining the roads in its jurisdiction. The county points to a November 2016 opinion by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office that supports its position, while VTIL counters that the AG’s ruling is a non-binding opinion that has not been settled and is therefore unenforceable.
No TOIL argues that VTIL’s claims about being able ease congestion on Indian Land roads are hot air since the group has no road plan and didn’t include funding of any sort for roads in its proposed budget.
The group acknowledges the controversy over the AG’s opinion, though it agrees with the county in saying the opinion proves the new town would have to maintain county roads.  The group then plays the tax card in its argument by taking VTIL to task for not including funding for road maintenance in its proposed budget.
“That will require new municipal taxes to be assessed to either pay for a road department or contract for services from the county road department,” No TOIL says in its presentations. “Once again, your county property taxes will not go down, but you will be paying new taxes for a service you already have.”
The facts
Jeff Shacker, field services manager for the Municipal Association of South Carolina (MASC), said while he couldn’t say if VTIL’s plans for addressing Indian Land traffic would succeed, the effort was plausible.
He said the tools of planning are intended to manage and direct growth and are often most effective when directed “closer to home” than on the state or county level, since a municipality knows its needs better than the other entities.
Shacker said an example of an Indian Land planning tool would be the new town’s planning commission, which would advise town council on issues such as land development and its impact on the community.
“New ordinances, ordinance changes, new standards are being developed on the county level and recommended on county level by a county planning commission, and their focus is on the whole county,” Shacker said. “But with a municipal planning commission and council, all representation is local.”
Shacker said partnerships play an important role, and the town’s pursuit of partnerships with entities such as SCDOT to address road needs, would be strengthened by the town’s intimate focus on its own needs.
According to Shacker, VTIL’s general point of view on who would be responsible for maintaining Indian Land roads is correct. But the issue is far from settled since it hasn’t been litigated yet, Shacker said, but that’s not to say they’re to be dismissed outright.
“Attorneys general opinions are nonbinding legal advice from our state’s highest attorney’s office, and as a result, they do carry more weight than the opinion of an individual or a regular attorney,” he said. “They can be extremely helpful in interpreting a law, but for a matter of law to be decided, it has to be decided by a court.
“To my knowledge, it has not been litigated yet and the cities and the counties where the issue has come up have been able to come up with a solution that does not involve a lawsuit,” he said.
Both sides make valid points in their arguments, and some unknowable assumptions.
Despite No TOIL’s assertion that a town of Indian Land wouldn’t be able to do anything about congestion on the community’s roads, tools of government available to communities only through incorporation exist for just such reasons.
It’s hard to argue with the assumption that an incorporated community wouldn’t work harder for its own interest than another, larger government. The results, however, wouldn’t likely be immediate, due to even more traffic over time as previously approved projects are completed.
Without a crystal ball, is nearly impossible to know with certainty how the S.C. Supreme Court would rule in considering the S.C. Attorney General’s opinion in a future case on the county road maintenance issue.
If the court ruled against the town, residents would almost certainly have to fund the cost of road maintenance with taxes.