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Pawleys Plaza: Small crowd cheers small-box vote

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Plaza developers will get a building only half as big as they initially wanted under a plan approved by Georgetown County Council this week.

The plaza will have an anchor store of 60,000 square feet that must be separated from other buildings of 33,000 and 16,000 square feet, according to the compromise plan that received the second of three required readings.

Council Member Jerry Oakley clarified language in the ordinance that the three major buildings had to have at least three different tenants, preventing a big-box retailer from skirting the intent of the law and occupying all the space.

Sunbelt Ventures, a Mount Pleasant-based partnership, applied last summer to build a 119,500-square foot retail store that was said to be driven by interest from Wal-Mart Stores.

But Tuesday night Gray Taylor, the developer’s attorney, said the talk about a Walmart was just rumor. “Much of the conversation had to do with Wal-Mart,” he told County Council. “That’s not the case tonight. It was never the case.”

Fears that a Walmart was coming were real enough to bring out nearly 1,300 people to protest redevelopment plans for the old shopping center at a Planning Commission hearing in September.

Planners recommended the redevelopment, as long as it followed the Waccamaw Neck Overlay Zone, which limits retail buildings to 60,000 square feet in a “planned development” zoning district.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis announced during the public comment period that a partner in Sunbelt, Dusty Wiederhold, had assured him that Wal-Mart Stores would not be in Pawleys Plaza. “He respectfully requests that comments directed towards Wal-Mart will not be relevant,” Otis said.

Much of the September public hearing before the Planning Commission was taken up with complaints about Wal-Mart and its threat to local business. Once county planning officials stopped all reference to Wal-Mart, the protests moved on against all generic big-box retailers.

Representatives from the citizens group Don’t Box The Neck helped forge Tuesday’s agreement.

“We are pleased that Sunbelt Ventures has worked with us to come to a compromise,” said SueAnn Crawford, who chairs the group. “We’re not overly excited about the outcome but considering the ordinance in place, it’s the best we could obtain. Sunbelt used every method available to them to stretch the ordinance.”

Crawford urged council members to keep the project from setting a precedent. In fact, she hoped it would set a new standard for ambiance in Pawleys Island.

Otis said the community was supportive of the progress made on the plaza redevelopment. That’s why only about 75 people attended the public hearing at the old county courthouse in Georgetown.

“The process is working to the benefit of the community,” he said. “We’re not against growth on the Waccamaw Neck, just big-box stores. Zoning is to protect the environment and assure controlled growth and development.”

Otis agreed that Pawleys Island is not what it once was, an isolated community far off the beaten path. “We’ve changed,” he said, “but the rest of the world has changed more. We will retain that magical difference.”

Amy Armstrong, attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project who represents the Coastal Conservation League, said she was satisfied with the redevelopment plan but wants the county to take special care to protect water quality of Pawleys Creek.

Vida Miller, a former state representative and business owner, applauded the “reasonable alternative” that will protect the area’s unique characteristics.

Others had their specific concerns:

• Tom Stickler of Hagley said the county should require a traffic study that includes plans for the median on Highway 17.

• Karen Yaniga, who lives off the South Causway, said trees were vital to the landscape plan and would soften the appearance of the big parking lot. Trees that died were never replanted at the plaza, she said. That should not be the case again. Live oaks should be predominant, she added.

• Jeff McClary, who heads SCUTE, which monitors sea turtles, said lighting at the plaza should be turned down at night to prevent it from disorienting hatchlings. “In 20 years we have learned that 99 percent of these turtles bend toward the glow of Myrtle Beach to the north on a moonless night,” he said.

• Bob Dimseky of Pawleys Plantation said he considered the Waccamaw Neck a “green zone” and wanted sign restrictions revisited. He advocated removal of non-conforming signs from the community “even if we have to buy them out.”

• Glenn Cox, owner of Pawleys Island Pharmacy and other businesses, and his daughter Jennifer Brown and her husband, Chris, owners of Pawleys Island Supplies, said a national retailer would hurt their businesses and jeopardize jobs.

• Mary Gale Budzisz of Ricefields said she was worried about a wetland area behind the proposed store and presented a list of stores she would like to see at the plaza: Dunkin’ Donuts, Trader Joe’s and Chico’s. “I have traveled extensively,” she said, “and this is the place I love to come home to.”

(Chico’s is currently preparing to open next to Fresh Market. Dunkin’ Donuts was shown on the original sketches for Pawleys Plaza.)

The project needs one more reading from County Council. Members say that is likely to wait until further information is received from Sunbelt.

The buildings will have to meet design standards contained in the Waccamaw Neck overlay zone, which requires buildings to have pitched roofs. No elevations have been submitted to accompany the revised site plan.

Sunbelt will also be required to pave Richardson Drive to provide access to the property from Waverly Road. Under the current plan, that road would lead to some vacant commercial space behind the proposed buildings and to a residential area that Sunbelt has proposed at the rear of the tract. The plan shows 12 multi-family units and seven single-family lots.

Sunbelt will be required to seek approval from the state Department of Transportation for a traffic light at the intersection of Highway 17 and Petigru Drive on the south side of the center before it can begin construction. It cannot get a certificate of occupancy until DOT rules on the light. If approved, the developer will have to pay all costs to install it.

A bike path was also among requirements for Sunbelt. But Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said that would also run across property owned by Bank of America, and he doubted the bank could be forced to comply. He suggested removing the bike path requirement. Council members will consider that next month.

Council Member Ron Charlton said the plan was still a work in progress and wants to see landscape plans before he approves it on third reading.

Council Member Austin Beard said the outcome of the plaza’s redevelopment was a testament to the citizens involved. “They have come together with a desire to improve their quality of life,” Beard said. “Some emotions have overcome common sense, but by and large the people came together.”

Beard said he would like to see a plat, design work and possible elevations next month before third and final approval is granted.

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