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The big box: Hearing audience thins over 5 hours

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

In the end, opposition to a big-box store in a planned redevelopment of Pawleys Island Plaza proved to be a war of attrition.

Few of the estimated 1,300 people who showed up for a public hearing last week were around nearly five hours later when members of the Georgetown County Planning Commission voted to approve a proposal that limits the size of the anchor store to no more than 60,000 square feet.

Members of the Don’t Box The Neck group that opposed the project dressed in green T-shirts bearing the slogan borrowed from singer Joni Mitchell, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

County planning staff pointed out that the argument was over land that’s already paved. The redevelopment of a run-down shopping center seemed like a good trade off, the staff proposal said.

The home team wore green, and the festive mood prior to the Thursday meeting rivaled a football Friday. Anticipation, or maybe dread, was thick in the air; the outcome uncertain.

The group’s victory in 2005, keeping a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center off Highway 17 at the South Causeway, changed the landscape of development on the Waccamaw Neck. The proposal from Sunbelt Ventures for a 119,500 square foot store at Pawleys Island Plaza violated the spirit of those restrictions, if not the actual wording, opponents argued.

Big-box opponents held a press conference for the benefit of area television crews. Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League served as anchor. Amy Armstrong of the S.C. Environmental Law Project said a big-box store was prohibited by ordinance. Charles Biddix, owner of Ace Hardware, said a petition against the rezoning already had 3,184 signatures from individuals and 116 businesses. Tom Stickler said the developers’ traffic estimates were flawed.

TV had its snippet for the 6 o’clock news.

It was time to go inside, and Armstrong worried that her “legal blah blah blah” would be lost amid more passionate protests.

Once the Waccamaw High School auditorium was full, the school cafeteria began accepting the overflow crowd. Seats filled quickly, and soon it was standing room only around the edges. School personnel carried in folding metal chairs; some onlookers just sat on the floor.

A large speaker at the front of the room provided ample volume of the proceedings in the auditorium, but an ordinary movie screen was too small to reveal the details of slides being presented. By the time Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, completed his hour-long explanation of the proposal, people were beginning to drift away. More might have gone home early, had they known there would be four more hours.

Some in the cafeteria felt free to respond to the screen. People laughed when Johnson called the anchor tenant “an unnamed large retailer.”

Sunbelt says Wal-Mart Stores is interested, though not committed to the project.

“We don’t know the tenant,” Johnson said. “We really don’t.”

That met with an audible buzz.

To manage the development’s traffic, there will be a new stop light on Highway 17 at Petigru with a 300-foot stacking lane, a traffic engineer for Sunbelt explained.

“Disaster waiting to happen,” said a listener.

A promise to clean up contaminated soil from a former dry cleaners drew only smug laughter, and a reference to working with Dollar General yielded a chorus of “Boos.”

“Wrap it up,” someone in back demanded.

“Don’t Box the Neck,” a woman shouted.

People continued to give up and go home after an hour or so, a trickle at first and then a steady stream.

“It’s a tactic to either get people to leave or put them to sleep,” one conspiracy theorist said.

Chairman Brian Henry announced that 90 people had signed up to speak. They would get 3 minutes each, he said.

With reality setting in, the exodus began in earnest.

Henry tried to move the meeting along by limiting the Wal-Mart bashing and redundant comments with little success. Of the 54 people who actually spoke, all but four were opposed. The supporters cited the need for jobs and more competitive prices, apparently assuming like many opponents that the store would be a Walmart.

Larson Jaenickie was skeptical of claims to the contrary. “My hand reached to my wallet to make sure I still had it” when Sunbelt said it had no commitment, he said.

He and others talked about the effects Walmarts have had on small businesses in other communities.

Chris and Jennifer Brown, co-owners of Pawleys Island Supplies, worried about the effect on their business, which they said they bought knowing that county zoning limited national retailers.

“The winter is very cold,” Chris said. With a big-box store “the winter is going to get colder.”

Gena and Darnell Simmons bought their first home on Richardson Lane, which is proposed for paving as a secondary access to the new store. “This is our dream,” Gena said. “I’m just not liking this proposal.”

Rebecca Barber said she doesn’t oppose the redevelopment, but doesn’t want a Walmart because she used to work for the company. “I was treated less than human,” she said.

But Alice Young said there are people who need those jobs. “Think about the whole community,” she said.

Bunny and Andrew Rodrigues said Waccamaw Neck was already “boxed” by gated communities. “I’m speaking for a community you don’t know anything about,” Bunny said.

Armstrong and Bob Moran, attorney for Don’t Box the Neck, said the plan doesn’t meet the zoning ordinance which requires buildings visible from Highway 17 to meet size restrictions and design standards.

Johnson said the staff considered the Sunbelt proposal exempt because the big-box store would be on a separate parcel.

Henry and commission member Glenda Shoulette, both area residents, said the visibility rule applies, with Shoulette noting other national retailers are in business in small stores.

Her motion to deny the rezoning failed in a 3-2 vote.

The three members from west of the Waccamaw River all spoke of change.

“I have to be for all the people, not just a few,” commission member Marvin Neal said.

Cave, sensing the board was about to recommend approval of a big-box store, left for home and missed the evening’s biggest surprise.

Neal moved for approval, but with compliance with the building size limit, which is 60,000 square feet.

Henry asked him twice to repeat the motion, then called for the question. It passed 4-1.

Read more about the project: Pawleys Island and Walmart

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