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Walmart: County staff will recommend approval – with conditions

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“Flat out denial? We’re not doing that,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

He will deliver staff recommendations to the Georgetown County Planning Commission this week on a proposal to expand the Pawleys Island Plaza for a new development that will include a 119,500-square-foot retail store. Staff were in Horry County on Wednesday looking at big-box retail stores for ideas about building design and ways to reduce the impact of parking lots.

“Assuming we approve with conditions, one of the things we’re looking at is ways to soften the impact of such a large parking lot,” Johnson said.

Sunbelt Ventures is seeking approval for a redevelopment of the shopping center, which is a “planned development” currently approved for 100,600 square feet of retail space. Just over 77,000 square feet was ever built, and that dates to the 1980s.

“A big-box has already been approved for this site, but not as big a box,” Johnson said.

The county limits commercial buildings to 45,000 square feet in an “overlay zone” along Highway 17, but the proposed store would be just outside the 500-foot limit of that zone.

Although county officials were told Wal-Mart wants to build a store at the center, members of Sunbelt Ventures have said they don’t have a commitment from the retail chain.

Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt, said it was Wal-Mart that prompted the firm to look for a site in Georgetown and Horry counties for a Neighborhood Market grocery store. The company later began to look at a full-fledged store, he said.

“The process for us is still wide open,” he said. Sunbelt will lease the property.

A spokesman for Wal-Mart said the company is “certainly interested in South Carolina and the Pawleys Island area.” But he added, “we don’t have any specific plans to announce.”

The project has sparked the revival of the Don’t Box the Neck citizens group that successfully opposed construction of a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse on Highway 17 at the South Causeway in 2005.

The addition of a Walmart to the debate has further fueled the campaign against big-box retailers, with opponents saying the chain will force independently-owned small businesses to close.

But Wiederhold points out that the zoning ordinance doesn’t require that the name of the tenant be included in the rezoning request.

As it stands, if the project is approved, it could be March before an announcement about the tenant is made, he said.

Sunbelt has scheduled a public meeting Monday at Pawleys Island Community Church to discuss the project.

That will come just three days before the Planning Commission hearing. It is scheduled for the Waccamaw High Auditorium because of the large number of people who are expected to attend.

Both meetings are at 5:30 p.m.

“Zoning is an emotional issue,” said Mike Wooten, president of DDC Engineers, which designed the project. “It’s emotion we’re battling, not facts.”

A “planned development” is a unique zoning district. The plan for the plaza, which will be renamed Pawleys Island Village, is up for a hearing because Sunbelt wants to expand the boundaries of the development to take in adjacent property and increase the overall amount of retail space to 147,000 square feet.

By setting the big-box store 500 feet from the highway to avoid the size restriction, Sunbelt has to take advantage of a change to the zoning ordinance passed earlier this year that allows shared parking between properties.

Although one development, there are two lots shown in the Pawleys Island Village plan: one for the large retailer, another for the other shops and parking.

The shared parking issue was first raised with a conference center in Litchfield. Also, “a lot of restaurants in Murrells Inlet were running into problems,” Johnson said.

He isn’t sure that the Pawleys Island Village meets the spirit of that provision. “We like shared parking, but that’s not what this is,” he said.

He said one likely condition is to require Sunbelt to pave the entire length of Richardson Drive between Waverly Road and the development. “They’re offering to pave the part they extend,” Johnson said.

Although a traffic study for the project shows little use of Richardson or Petgru Drive to reach the development, Wooten said that’s because the study doesn’t account for “local knowledge.”

Residents will take back roads to avoid traffic on the highway, he said.

Sunbelt has already agreed to comply with design standards for the big-box store which would apply if it were in the overlay zone.

Although the size of the principal building may not be limited by the overlay zone, Johnson said it could be limited by the Planning Commission.

“The Planning Commission could approve X square feet since it’s a planned development,” he said.

Read more about the project: Pawleys Island and Walmart

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