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Pawleys Island: Zoning case casts doubt on town rule that limits renovations

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A Circuit Court judge has upheld the town of Pawleys Island’s decision in a zoning dispute between neighbors, but cast further doubt on a rule that the town says limits renovation of homes on the island.

In December 2010, the town Board of Zoning Appeals ruled that Tom Davy had to tear down a second-story deck built in the building setback of his house on Doyle Avenue because it increased the size of a nonconforming use. An existing deck came within a foot of his neighbor’s property.

The neighbor, Carolyn Camlin, had appealed Davy’s certificate of occupancy, saying the value of his renovations exceeded 50 percent of the cost of his home and should require him to bring the building into compliance with the zoning code, including the building setbacks.

The town contracts with Georgetown County for building and zoning services. At the appeals board hearing, Robert Cox, the county’s chief building official, testified that he doesn’t believe the “50-percent rule” applies to renovations, but only to buildings that are damaged or destroyed. This put him at odds with the town.

Both Camlin and Davy asked the court to overturn the appeals board ruling: Camlin saying it didn’t go far enough, Davy saying it went too far. Judge William H. Seals Jr. of Marion heard arguments from both sides last month.

Attorneys for the town argued both at the appeals board hearing and in court that the town has been consistent in requiring that renovations beyond 50 percent of a structure’s value trigger compliance with the zoning code. With many narrow lots, some with setback violations that are grandfathered because they existed before the town was formed, the “50-percent rule” has limited the extent of renovations to older island homes.

In testimony before the appeals board, Davy acknowledged that he priced the renovation just below the value of his house. But he said he later learned from Cox that exceeding 50 percent of the value wouldn’t require him to remove the rear porch and steps that had intruded into the setback since the house was rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo.

Although the evidence shows that the value of Davy’s renovations grew from $69,200 to $115,000, Seals said there is a “conflict” about how the “50-percent rule” applies.

“Implicit in the ruling of the Board of Zoning Appeals is adoption of the interpretation of the code consistent with the interpretation given by the building inspector,” he wrote in his order upholding the board’s decision. “This court’s review of the code language, to determine if the board’s decision amounts to an error of law, is consistent.”

The plain language of the town code “contains no specific prohibitions against renovations to an existing structure, in the absence of damage or destruction, containing any limitation to the dollar value of the renovations relative to the fair market value of the existing structure,” Seals wrote.

Based on the legal standards for reviewing an appeal from the Board of Zoning Appeals, the judge said, “if there is any evidence to support the board’s decision, which I find there is, the decision of the board must be upheld.”

Davy argued that in converting a deck with a roof to a two-story deck didn’t expand the nonconforming use, pointing out that the pilings were in the same location before and after the renovation.

“The fact that the nonconforming portion of the structure had an expanded use is supported by the facts,” Seals ruled.

He found that the facts support the appeals board decision. “It had a reasonable relation to the lawful purpose of allowing a homeowner to improve his dwelling without undue hardship,” Seals wrote. “The remedy fashioned by the board placed Camlin in the exact same position, relative to the setback violation, as she was prior to construction.”

It’s uncertain how the ruling may affect the town’s enforcement of the “50-percent rule.” Mayor Bill Otis said he would wait to comment on the ruling until it was clear the litigation is over.

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