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Pawleys Island: Rule change would allow $99,000 home to add $50,000 kitchen

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Even as they took steps to restore a limit on the value of renovations to homes before they have to be brought into compliance with town zoning rules, the Pawleys Island Planning Commission this week agreed that it wants to do away with the so-called “50-percent rule” that was struck down by a Circuit Court judge last year.

That means the town may allow buildings that don’t conform to the zoning rules to remain as they are even if they are improved.

Until the court ruling, the town required anyone who did renovations equal to or exceeding 50 percent of the value of a home to bring it into compliance with setbacks, roof pitch and other regulations.

That policy was challenged in a suit stemming from a dispute between neighbors in the island’s Birds Nest section. The case was heard by the Board of Zoning Appeals, and Georgetown County’s chief building official, who works for the town under contract, testified that the 50-percent rule only applies to homes that are damaged.

The case reached the Circuit Court, where a judge affirmed the building official’s interpretation of the ordinance.

The Planning Commission this week recommended that Town Council amend the zoning ordinance to restore the 50 percent rule, but only while it reviews the need for the rule.

Commission member Walter McElveen said someone with a home valued at $99,000 (not including the land) ought to be able to do a $50,000 renovation to the kitchen without triggering other changes to bring the home into compliance with the zoning rules.

“That’s some kitchen,” commission member Bill Tuttle said.

The point is, using a dollar figure is arbitrary, McElveen said.

“What is the limit? Fifty percent? Seventy percent? If you build on Tuesdays?” he asked.

Tom Britton, assistant planning director at Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, is working with the town to revise the ordinance. He said local governments use a variety of factors, and some have no limit on renovation of non-conforming structures.

“The call is yours,” Britton said. “What is your vision for Pawleys Island.”

Mayor Bill Otis said the vision when the zoning ordinance was adopted after the town was created in 1985 was to eventually do away with all non-conforming structures.

Howard Ward, who chairs the Planning Commission, estimates a third of all houses on the island have some sort of violation that was grandfathered in when the town was formed.

“This is a mammoth job,” Ward said. “It’s going to take a lot of discussion.”

The commission adopted the amendment to give it time to hold that discussion. That will basically freeze all non-conforming structures, Britton said.

But commission members say they are also concerned that it will lead some owners to tear down older houses rather than renovate them.

They agreed to do away with the 50-percent rule as it pertains to the value. Britton said some communities limit renovations to a percentage of building size.

McElveen said that would at least separate the issue from fluctuations in market conditions.

Commission member Bill Doar said it’s important that whatever the commission eventually recommends be written to reduce the room for interpretation by building officials.

Part of the discussion will also concern non-coforming uses, such as duplexes, which can no longer be built in the town. There are about 70 existing duplexes. If destroyed, they can be rebuilt.

Commission member Fran Green said she was concerned they could also be increased in size as part of that process.

That’s the way the ordinance reads now, Britton said.

McElveen said he saw no reason to eliminate them, but suggested they be capped at their current size. The other commissioners agreed.

And they also agreed that parts of buildings that don’t conform, such as a deck that violates a setback, shouldn’t be allowed to increase in size.

Britton said he will develop a draft ordinance based on the commission’s decisions. That will take a couple of weeks.

“The point of all this is to get people to be considerate of their neighbors,” Green said.

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