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Pawleys Plaza: Developers consider another delay to council actions

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The developers of Pawleys Island Plaza will decide this week whether to ask Georgetown County Council for another delay in bringing their plan to a vote.

Sunbelt Ventures wants to add to the development and include space for a national retailer, but its proposal for a 119,500-square-foot building was rejected by the county Planning Commission. It voted in September to require the project to follow the rules of an “overlay zone” on Highway 17 that limits commercial buildings to 60,000 square feet.

Sunbelt representatives met last week with members of Don’t Box the Neck, a group that opposed the plan for a big-box store at the plaza. The group, which opposed a 137,000-square-foot Lowe’s Home Improvement Center on the highway in 2005, helped draw about 1,300 people to the Planning Commission hearing.

The council is due to give the first of three required readings to the commission recommendation Tuesday. First reading approval is routine. Discussion by council comes with second reading.

Sunbelt has said they plan to submit a new plan for the development. The property is currently zoned as a “planned development” with approval for one building of 84,000 square feet.

At the meeting with Don’t Box the Neck members last week, Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt, pitched the idea of an 84,000-square-foot building, said SueAnn Crawford, who chairs the Don’t Box the Neck committee.

She and Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis, who is a member of the group, rejected the idea. A letter to County Council from attorneys for the group two days after the meeting reinforced the group’s argument that the 84,000 square feet was unique to a project planned by the previous owner to renovate the center.

Sunbelt plans to demolish the existing building and erect a building for a national retailer on adjacent property that will be included in the overall development.

So Wiederhold proposed two buildings, 50,000 and 34,000 square feet joined by a breezeway, according to Crawford. She called it “another creative effort basically to subvert the ordinance.”

“He was feeling us out. We were feeling him out,” she said. “He didn’t give any real ground.”

The 90-minute session “went as expected,” Wiederhold said. “We’re trying to be respectful of what their thinking is.”

The big-box building was originally presented to Georgetown County as a Walmart. As opposition to the project developed, Sunbelt stressed that Wal-Mart Stores is interested in the property but had made no commitment.

“There are some options that have cropped up since our original submittal,” Wiederhold said. Those involve possible tenants.

Sunbelt says the only way to revive Pawleys Island Plaza is with a national tenant that will draw traffic to smaller stores. The center was built in the 1980s with a grocery store as an anchor, but that store closed in the late 1990s and the space remained vacant.

Micky Stikas, the former owner, got county approval to expand the main building in 2008. The additional space was a trade-off for bringing the center into compliance with appearance, stormwater and other standards that had been adopted since it was built.

In order for Sunbelt to build an 84,000-square-foot building, it would have to follow the plan Stikas proposed, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

“As far as we’re concerned, Micky had a particular plan. They would have to do the identical plan, including the façade,” he said. They don’t have a vested right to 84,000 square feet.”

That was the same argument made by attorneys for Don’t Box the Neck and the Coastal Conservation League, which also opposes a big-box store.

“Reliance on a vested interest to morph the previously approved 84,000 square foot, multi-tenant, shopping center into a stand-alone single retail building of between 84,000-119,500 square feet is in direct contradiction of the applicable zoning ordinance,” Amy Armstrong and Bob Moran wrote in a letter to council members.

Wiederhold said Sunbelt wants to take its time in developing a new plan, but it wants to present that plan to County Council rather than starting over with the Planning Commission.

“If council can deal with it, I think it’s best,” Council Member Jerry Oakley said, but he added “anything that is perceived by the community as an attempt to subvert the ordinance will provoke the same reaction.”

Sunbelt bought the mortgage to the property from Bank of America, and paid cash, Wiederhold said. “So there is no gun to our head,” he added. “It deserves to be properly planned.”

He said Sunbelt will decide Friday on a deferral.

And one point of agreement was reached at the meeting with Don’t Box the Neck, he said.

“We don’t want this to end up in lengthy litigation,” Wiederhold said.

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