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Development: County moves to close loopholes for big-box stores

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Members of the Georgetown County Planning Commission began nailing the door shut on any more big box development proposals along the Waccamaw Neck’s Highway 17 corridor last week by recommending approval of three proposals to restrict buildings.

Changes in the county’s ordinance regarding the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor Overlay Zone were proposed to close loopholes that owners of Pawleys Island Plaza attempted to use to gain approval of an expansion for a Walmart.

Boyd Johnson, county planning director, said changes put forth by his department attempted to use the lessons learned from the plaza, beginning with the definition of a building as having a single footprint. The proposal says, “A commercial building is a structure delineated by external sides joined together to form a building perimeter and covered by a roof. The perimeter of the building, in turn, establishes a single footprint. The building may be segmented via internal petition walls to allow for multiple tenants, if all other requirements of the zoning ordinance are met.”

Developers, Johnson said, could use the present ordinance to build two 45,000 square foot buildings separated only by a firewall. “This definition takes away the argument to count two or three maximum-size buildings as one,” he said.

New buildings in the Plaza redevelopment will have to be at least 10 feet apart, and Johnson recommended expanding that to 20 feet. “Ten feet doesn’t make anybody happy,” he said. “The space is wasted space for a developer and collects litter. We would like to create usable space without encouraging sprawl.”

Johnson’s third recommendation was a 50,000 square foot limit on buildings with no exceptions. The ordinance says buildings can be up to 45,000 square feet and, with County Council’s approval, 60,000 in a “planned development”.

Commission chairman Brian Henry said he favored keeping the size limit at 45,000 square feet. “I don’t want to see it increase,” he said. “I would rather hold the line than let it slip.”

Johnson said the new Lowes Foods at the South Causeway will be 47,000 square feet. “I wouldn’t want to lose Lowe’s Foods over 2,000 square feet,” he said.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis told commission members the proposals were a good first step in redefining the overlay district.

“I congratulate the staff on defining a building,” Otis said. “That really works.”

He said opponents of big box development, like the group Don’t Box The Neck, would prefer more space between buildings. “Twenty feet is not very much,” he said. “We’d like to see it be a little larger.”

And finally, he applauded the idea of a hard cap on the size of buildings, though big box foes have toyed with the idea of seeking the Murrells Inlet fishing village limits of 30,000 square feet for a standalone building and 45,000 for one in a “planned development”.

“I agree that moving [the limit] up is counterproductive,” Otis said, “and sends the wrong signal to folks committed to the Waccamaw Neck.”

Otis said planners need to also consider parking, setback from Highway 17 and signs. “Developers at the Plaza tried to use off-site parking to end run the whole definition of the Waccamaw Neck overlay zone,” he said. The present ordinance requires large buildings to be more than 500 feet from Highway 17, and Otis suggested changing it to 750 or 1,000 feet.

“You’re going in the right direction,” he told commission members.

On signage, Henry suggested that the county use the Lowe’s Foods development to set a standard for what it wants to see along the corridor in the future.

Tom Stickler, president of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations, said the proposal was a good start. “They are moving in the right direction,” he said. “The Waccamaw Neck is special. It was good that the planning board said we want a 45,000 cap and not the 50,000 that staff came up with. It will be interesting to see the actual ordinance.”

Changes in the overlay zone ordinance will require three readings before County Council.

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