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Planning Commission: Litchfield Market Village wants bigger sign for bigger sales

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Litchfield Market Village may be a model commercial development, but it’s a model that hasn’t stood up against competitors who played by a different set of rules, a partner in the development says.

Last week, Jim Christopher asked the Georgetown County Planning Commission for help in the form of a larger sign on Highway 17 and bigger letters on signs within the complex.

When it was approved 12 years ago, the goal for Litchfield Market Village was “high quality, low-visual-impact design,” Christopher said. “We saved a bunch of trees back before it was cool.”

But he said other projects along Highway 17 didn’t follow suit.

“Our tenants voted with their feet and moved out to these other developments,” Christopher said.

He wants to replace the existing sign on Highway 17 and Willbrook Boulevard with a 19-foot high sign that contains an electronic message board.

But a hearing before the planning commission on Christopher’s request came three days after members began discussing revisions to the county sign rules. Those revisions would limit signs to 15 feet in height and ban message boards.

Christopher agreed to defer his request for a month while the commission continues to work on the new sign rules. Commission members said the Litchfield Market Village proposal could help focus their discussion, but they were cautious about how long it will take for a new set of sign rules to emerge.

“I’m not so sure where we’re going with the sign ordinance,” commission member Tommy Edwards said.

He proposed delaying a decision on Litchfield Market Village until the new ordinance is adopted.

“I don’t think we should do that to the applicant,” commission chairman Jeff Kinard said. It could be the end of the year before a new ordinance is submitted to County Council for final approval, he said.

“I’m not happy with what I’m seeing, but I would like to give him some relief,” Kinard said.

The current highway sign for the development is a low brick and stucco wall with a total area of 79 square feet. The proposed sign would be V-shaped with sides facing Willbrook Boulevard and Highway 17. It would have 250 square feet.

County planning staff recommended denial of the change, “primarily because of the reader board,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

“The materials and design of the existing sign are better for this [planned development] than what is being proposed,” he said.

Christopher said he doesn’t like the electronic message boards either, but said they are important for small tenants.

A Piggly Wiggly grocery store is the anchor tenant at the complex. It would have control over the message board.

“The store has felt the impact of losing smaller tenants,” said Christopher Isben, director of real estate for Piggly Wiggly. He pointed out that the sign is in proportion with the entrance sign to Willbook Plantation.

Jim Christopher told the commission he wanted to expand the brick and stucco sign, but that he was turned down by the Willbrook Plantation Road Maintenance District, which enforces deed restrictions in the planned development. “We think that would look better,” he said.

The road district board initially endorsed the proposed change in the market village sign, then withdrew its support. It says the electronic message board “could provide a potential safety hazard at an already dangerous intersection.”

The Willbrook Plantation Community Association also opposes the new sign.

Ken Kreikemeier, a board member, told the commission they want the center to be successful, but “we very much support the elimination of these signs in the future.”

Approving a message board at the market village will up the ante for similar signs at the nearby Mingo shopping center and the Waccamaw Higher Education Center, he said.

“Where does it all stop?” Kreikemeier asked.

Commission member Glenda Shoulette, who served on the board when Litchfield Market Village was approved in 1997, told Christopher, “we do use you as a model.”

She agreed that the current sign is too small, but said the proposed sign is “so out of scale and so out of aesthetic.”

Commission member Brian Henry said he doesn’t have a problem with the height of the new sign, but he doesn’t like electronic message boards.

“The sign’s not big enough, but it needs to be brick and stucco,” Shoulette said.

The commission will resume talks on the sign ordinance Aug. 6, then take up Christopher’s request Aug. 20.

A proposal that treats condotels like any other hotel will go to Georgetown County Council for approval.

The measure was approved by the planning commission last week following months of discussion and a public hearing that drew no comment from the public.

The commission decided in January that it wanted to discourage the use of hotel rooms with individual owners as residences. But it discovered that the zoning ordinance didn’t actually define hotels.

Hotels, regardless of the ownership scheme, have to provide on-site guest services and can’t have washers and dryers in the rooms.

They are allowed in “general commercial” and “resort commercial” zones.

Commission member Glenda Shoulette proposed a requirement that any other commercial uses proposed for a hotel project would require a “planned development,” which would trigger a public hearing.

“We’ve got to cover ourselves,” she said.

The changes passed unanimously.

“Aggressive competition” by roadside vendors has staff reviewing the vending ordinance, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

He plans to recommend changes to the commission.

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