Everyone in Richmond Hill knows the city is in a prime location. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t continue to grow as it has. Just last year, CNN’s Money.com named Richmond Hill one of the top 25 "Where the jobs are" cities in America.
But as growth continues, there have been concerns it may change the quality of life for local residents. In 2000, the population in Richmond Hill was 6,959. In 2006, it increased by 40 percent to 9,806.
Sheila Galbreath is one resident who thinks growth is affecting the quality of life. She said there’s no comparison today for what South Bryan County used to be like.
"Twenty years ago, people actually moved here to make Bryan County their home – not just a pit stop on the way to getting their kids out of school then moving elsewhere," she said. "People cared about the community and the people here because it was home. If this county continues to allow growth at its current pace and continues on its ‘stack and pack’ course, I see the makings of large scale rundown housing projects in the next 20 years."
But Mayor Richard Davis noted growth isn’t Richmond Hill or Bryan County specific – rather, he says it’s coastline specific throughout the country.
"The projections for the East, Gulf and West Coasts of the U.S. – by 2015, more than 50 percent of the entire population will reside along them," Davis said. "If people are anti-growth and don’t want to be around people, they should make plans to go somewhere else. Not just here, but all the way around the country. Growth isn’t just coming to coastal Georgia – it’s going everywhere on the coast."
But Bryan County as a whole is growing faster than other areas. In 2008, it ranked in the top 100 fastest growing counties in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Davis said Richmond Hill’s proximity to Savannah, with regional healthcare and an international airport, give the city an advantage over other coastal areas.
"That’s probably why we’re growing a little faster than some of the other coastal counties," he said. "But right up the coast, all of these coastal areas are growing. Small cities that are relatively close to larger cities are growing the fastest."
Davis said America’s coastline makes up 17 percent of the nation’s land mass, but holds nearly 50 percent of its population.
By the year 2015, he said 165 million people will live along the coast.
"People complain about being around people, then they just need to move away from the coast. That’s harsh, but that’s the fact of life," he said.
In part, growth in Richmond Hill helped city Councilmember Marilyn Hodges get into local politics this past year.
She said while her ancestors were involved in the Republican Party, she wasn’t particularly interested until she began regularly attending planning and zoning and city council meetings a few years back.
"I thought it’d be fun to do it and I’m a little more involved now than I even ever thought I would be," she said. "It’s very interesting. I just wish there was a way to draw more people in to the meetings and get the community more involved. If it’s a major issue, you can get people but it’s almost like you have to go door to door to really get people interested."
Growth started impacting Hodges’ quality of life after Rayonier decided to sell Elbow Swamp, located behind her Sterling Creek neighborhood, to a developer. She immediately began a petition against it.
"I think the biggest thing right now is that we have a very serious traffic problem. The schools cannot handle the growing community," she said. "Safety and traffic issues seem to the biggest topics."
Today, because of the growth, the city is truly a "live, work, play community," according to local resident and developer Johnny Murphy. "You can do all those things here without having to leave."
Murphy said Richmond Hill offers the services and opportunities that are necessary to sustain an enjoyable quality of life.
He gave the example of smaller inner cities in Georgia without the resources to draw back their children once they’ve graduated, which he feels is a key issue.
"As long as we can keep those opportunities in front of our children, we’ll allow them to stay here and continue with that growth from one generation to the next," he said.
Davis and Hodges both listed downsides to growth as traffic, school overcrowding and safety. Davis also said more people can provide an opportunity for increased crime rates.
But, he said inside city limits the main roads are four-laned and there is an excellent police unit watching over city residents.
Editor's note; This is the second in a multi part series on growth in Bryan County, which runs on an occasional basis. Next up is a look at growth in Pembroke.
What some people are saying about growth in Richmond Hill:
"During the first 20 years of my marriage, twice a month we had to drive into Savannah just to buy groceries. Today, Richmond Hill boasts a brand new 74,000 square foot Kroger, the new Publix, restaurants, seven banks, doctors and dentists. All of these things are things that people enjoy and expect to have – but yet they don’t want growth. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have the fine and convenient things unless you have people. They go hand in hand."
– Richmond Hill Mayor Richard Davis
"When my daughter was one-week-old, about 25 years ago, she needed a prescription filled and I had to drive to the Rite Aid in Savannah, that was the closest pharmacy. I’ll never forget that. There was not a red light at the Hwy. 144 and 17 intersections at that point."– Johnny Murphy, developer
"I don’t have any professional guesses as to why so many people are choosing to relocate to this area – other than the fact it’s a wonderful place to be… But, you have so much existing industry and existing life here on the coast. If you’re not careful, the new development will start pushing out the old development and you’ll have incompatibility. You want to sustain your quality of life – not retract from it."– Adriane Wood, regional planner in the office of Planning and Quality Growth with the Department of Community Affairs who has been working on the Coastal Comprehensive Plan
"The people who attended – and keep in mind, it didn’t have any commercialization back then – everyone pulled together. And that’s been the spirit of this community. Even though we’ve had growth, I think you see the people who are coming here are seeing that as something that pulls them to this community. They’ve become a part of that spirit."– Commissioner Rick Gardner talking about the first years of the Seafood Festival
Have something to say about growth? Blog about it on our website at bryancountynews.net or contact reporter Jessica Holthaus at email@example.com or 756-2849.