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Litchfield incorporation: The town that never was

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

When local folks got riled up about a plan to erect a median on Highway 17 through Pawleys Island earlier this year, they suggested a familiar weapon in the battle against government intrusion: incorporation of the Waccamaw Neck.

While fighting a government proposal — the median on Highway 17 through Pawleys Island is a project funded through the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study — with more government sounds counter-intuitive to some, the idea of self-regulation is intoxicating to others. It was 25 years ago this week that a plan to create the town of Litchfield went before voters and into the dust bin of history.

Both sides in the incorporation vote left no stone unturned, playing on the prejudices against development giant Litchfield Company on one hand and the fear of creating another layer of self-sustaining municipal bureaucracy on the other. Incorporation was defeated, 199-127. Bill Miller, chairman of Concerned Citizens Against Incorporation, said on the night of the balloting it was a vote to keep things as they were.

Oddly enough, that was practically the campaign slogan of the forces promoting incorporation. A letter from the late Jim Thacker, chairman of the Town of Litchfield Incorporation Committee, said the area needed more protection from predatory development than Georgetown County was willing to provide and the incorporation of the town of Pawleys Island in 1985 was a model to follow. The incorporation group hired the lawyer who had guided Pawleys Island to incorporation, J. Reese Daniel. Looking back, said Georgetown County planning director Boyd Johnson, the Pawleys Island incorporation was an easy sell because there was no room for commercial development. “They were talking more of protecting the environment and how big a house you could build,” he said.

While Pawleys Island’s border was easy to define, the proposed town of Litchfield was an odd rectangle bordered by Huntington Beach State Park on the north, McKenzie Beach Road on the south, the right-of-way on the western side of Highway 17 on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. The area didn’t include anything west of the highway, but opponents like Miller figured the incorporation forces had annexation in mind down the road.

Dean Berry and Miller are close friends today, but 25 years ago they were on opposite sides of the annexation fence. “The main objectives we thought important,” Berry said this week, “were zoning and density. Foster McKissick did a wonderful job of development down here, but all of a sudden he took a turn at Litchfield by the Sea with mid-rise buildings and high density. We feared something like Myrtle Beach could happen down here. Our other concern was that Georgetown County had treated us like bad stepchildren, like we weren’t really part of the county even though we were a major source of income.”

Residents opposed to annexation immediately began moving to exclude portions of beachfront property from the town’s grasp. Miller, president of Litchfield By The Sea Community Association, sent his neighbors a letter asking if they wanted to be left out of the new town. Overwhelmingly, they said they did. William Latture, president of the Inlet Point Homeowners Association, informed Richard Groenig of the Litchfield Beaches Property Owners Association, that his directors had voted to opt out and asked incorporators to abide by their decision. When it didn’t appear that they would get their wish, Inlet Point residents hired Ken Thornton, a Georgetown lawyer, to confront the “gross unfairness” of incorporation.

Latture said the majority of Inlet Point owners were opposed to uncontrolled growth, poor zoning and a lack of zoning enforcement, but as a “planned unit development” they were already zoned for the future and saw no benefits. They were already paying for security guards and garbage collection, rebuilt their crosswalks when necessary and cleaned 900 feet of beachfront. “If we were incorporated,” Latture said in a letter to his lawyer, “chances are that we would eventually be taxed for services that we are now paying for and receive.”

As unsavory as an additional tax bill might seem, Latture said Inlet Point residents were even angrier because, as non-residents, they couldn’t vote. “This is a classic example of taxation without representation,” he wrote.

While Inlet Point residents claimed gerrymandering put them into the proposed town limits, a small group of African-Americans were able to be excluded after appealing to the state Human Rights Commission that they would have virtually no say in town affairs. Incorporation proponents let those few property owners go without a fight, but Litchfield by the Sea was another matter. The town’s budget was predicated on accommodation tax revenue and a 3 percent franchise fee from Santee Cooper. Without Litchfield by the Sea, the town would have had to levy property taxes. That was a non-starter for too many voters.

“It would have been a very onerous tax without us in the mix,” Miller said during an interview this week. “We had thousands of units that would have been on the tax rolls. They felt they had to have us, but again that wasn’t our problem.”

At a public meeting on March 18, 1989, Thacker outlined the advantages of incorporation with No. 1 being local control over zoning. The county had shown “alarming willingness” to rezone for any developer, presumably in the interest of increasing the county tax base, he said. He cited zoning changes that would have allowed a 10-unit-per-acre development called Cape Litchfield on the south end of Litchfield Beach had it not been stalled by a Coast Guard requirement for a 32-foot high bridge over Midway Creek. He also cited a commercial rezoning at Litchfield Landing and a condo development on 141-acres adjacent to North Litchfield called Waccamaw Trace that could hurt property values.

Thacker put forth a proposed town budget from accommodations taxes and franchise fees with revenues of $157,000 and expenditures of $124,000. “If Litchfield properties generate the tax and are the ones impacted by the tourists,” Thacker said, “it seems appropriate that they should have the full benefit from the tax as the General Assembly intended. Incorporation will accomplish this.”

The incorporation committee told residents it would be foolhardy not to take advantage of the economic good fortune of accommodations taxes and utility franchise fees to promote the area, ameliorate the impact of tourism and improve community services like Pawleys Island, Seabrook and Kiawah Island had done.

“It was all about money,” Miller said, “not zoning.”

More police visibility would be an added bonus to incorporation, Thacker said. The town could contract with the sheriff’s office for a full-time deputy who would be a town policeman. Regulating fireworks and litter, protecting the dunes and safety on Highway 17 were all seen as additional bonuses.

Thacker omitted from his presentation the estimate he had received two weeks earlier from Sheriff Michael Carter for policing the proposed town: $190,000. That was $33,000 more than the proposed town’s revenue.

Thacker listed the downsides to incorporation as being the remote possibility the accommodations tax would be rescinded, not enough volunteers would be willing to give up their golf or tennis to serve as mayor or members of town council, and political infighting and power struggles among neighbors.

“We are all closely bound,” Thacker said, “sharing an ecologically sensitive, narrow, four-mile long semi-peninsular stretch of creek and marsh on the west and beach front on the east. If one neighborhood improves their ecology, the others benefit. If one harms their ecology, the others are adversely impacted. Thus ecologically, we’re in this together. A major focus of the town will be to monitor and improve the ecology of the area. This can only be a plus to the private neighborhoods.”

Berry said the incorporation committee tried to get the facts out and let the people decide. “We tried not to play hardball,” he said. An early poll indicated 60 percent of permanent residents favored incorporation and non-residential property owners were about evenly split, Berry said. “We tried to find out where people stood,” he said. “We opted not to hire public relations people or play political games necessary to win elections. That was probably the reason for our defeat.”

If pro-incorporation forces were reluctant to play hard ball, the opponents were not. Watts Stroman, chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Our Litchfield, sent a letter to Litchfield property owners to clarify “gross misrepresentations” put forth by the incorporation side and set the record straight. He said that 99 percent of North Litchfield Beach has restrictive covenants or deed restrictions and there are 236 pages of restrictive covenants on Litchfield by the Sea, Inlet Point and Inlet Point South. There was nothing to worry about regarding unwanted development. He secured a letter from the attorney for Litchfield Company to back him up.

Daniel, the incorporators’ lawyer, replied with dripping sarcasm. “Like any good lawyer (and Mr. Stroman is an excellent attorney), he is skilled at emphasizing one side of a question and glossing over the facts that hurt his case.”

Daniel went on to say that a third of the beach front at North Litchfield is covered by covenants made solely for the benefit of the grantors, who may release or modify same in writing at any time. “In other words, this stretch of ocean-front is vulnerable to Arcadia II-type exploitation and the residents have no say-so,” Daniel wrote, referring to a resort-residential development plan that eventually became Prince George. “Past experiences prove that the county will not protect us against undesirable types of development. It is absolutely imperative that we incorporate to control our own destiny before it is too late.”

Miller figured out that only about 400 people would be eligible to vote. He set out to visit everyone who wasn’t a die-hard incorporation supporter. “Unbeknownst to everybody,” he said this week, “it was never going to pass.” With the vote limited to full-time residents, incorporation supporters felt it was a done deal. “They had nobody against them or those against them couldn’t vote,” Miller said. “What they didn’t realize — and I did — was that a lot of their friends and neighbors were not for it but didn’t want to say. So nobody knew they were against it, and it looked like it would fly through. I knew it was going to lose. There was not a house, particularly in North Litchfield, that I didn’t visit other than those of the most vehement supporters of incorporation. All the rest, I visited and sat down and talked with them. I don’t believe that the pro-incorporation people had any idea — and I didn’t either, until I asked. They would tell me but not their next door neighbors. They wanted to keep them as friends. This got very personal for a lot of people. It shouldn’t have, but it did.”

Mistrust was evident on the day of the vote. Voters proposed names for the town, including “Groaningville,” “Busy Bodies” and “Land of Oz.”

Berry’s elderly neighbor, an opponent of incorporation, asked him to take her to the polls. “You’ll cancel out my vote,” he told her, but took her anyway.

Jimmy Moore Sr., a lawyer and secretary of Litchfield Company, told poll managers the ballots should be turned over to Sheriff Carter for safekeeping. Poll manager June Svedberg told Moore he didn’t have that authority. Incorporation commission chairman Pride Brown said the ballots would be locked in the safe at the Litchfield Inn, where voting took place. Moore and his law partner Bill Doar represented Litchfield Company chairman Foster McKissick at the hearing on 32 challenged ballots. McKissick’s vote was challenged by proponents who questioned his residency. Two other company officials, Billy Webster and Russ Campbell, also had their ballots challenged. N. Stone Miller was mistaken for Stoney Miller and challenged along with his wife, Linda. Dorothy Martin said she had owned and paid taxes on her house on Norris Drive for 16 years, and her sister was married to Wallace Pate, one of the original developers of Litchfield Beach. She said she changed her voter registration but hadn’t changed her driver’s license because she was worried about taking the test again.

In the end, there weren’t enough challenged ballots to matter. “It was kind of a sad time, neighbors having disagreements” said Phyllis Thacker this week. Her husband Jim died in 2010. “It’s not good when you are on different sides of the fence. It’s probably just as well that we didn’t get it.”

Miller said the fears of high-rise buildings on the Litchfield beaches were overblown. County height restrictions prevented any more 60-foot tall units like the grandfathered buildings at Litchfield by the Sea. Even St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist Church had to put its steeple on the ground because of the height restrictions. “If a church couldn’t do it,” Miller said, “why would anybody think we could? People are always suspicious of a developer. We tried to be good neighbors, and most everybody down here thought we were good neighbors. I tend to think because incorporation didn’t pass, it was not a negative for the community in my humble opinion. You still have people from all over this country wanting to buy here because it’s not Myrtle Beach, not high-rises, not everything you don’t like about some resort areas. From that standpoint, the area has done very well without being incorporated.”

Berry said Litchfield residents got over the division. “I don’t see any reason to think it was a bad idea or a good idea looking back,” he said. “I think it forced Georgetown County to be more careful how they handled people up here on the Neck.”

Most were glad the following month that the town of Litchfield was not responsible when Hurricane Hugo plowed through Litchfield Beach and left a path of horrible destruction. “That,” Phyllis Thacker said this week, “would have been a bad start for our little town.”

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