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Pawleys Island: Town defends ordinance a foot at a time

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

After two hearings before the Pawleys Island Board of Zoning Appeals, two hearings in Circuit Court and two mediation sessions, the owners of a home on Atlantic Avenue were told they have to reduce their walkway from 6 feet to 4 feet. The order from Judge Larry Hyman filed last week came five and a half years after Robert and Pamela Wilkes were cited for a zoning violation.

It will cost at least $7,000 to tear down the 213-foot-long walkway and $35,000 to rebuild it to the narrower width. Those were the figures Robert Wilkes quoted in his second trip to the appeals board in March 2012.

Hyman’s order, which followed a court hearing in November, says that any hardship stems from the fact the walkway was built without a permit. It was “preventable and self induced,” the judge said.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis said the case was about the town ordinance, not the walkway. “There’s a clear ordinance that laid out the size of the boardwalk that could be built,” he said. “It’s totally about the integrity of the ordinance. I feel for them.”

Joseph Singleton, attorney for the Wilkeses, said this week he hadn’t received formal notice of the ruling. They have the option of asking the judge to reconsider and filing an appeal. “We certainly weren’t trying to flaunt the ordinance,” he said. “It was just one of those things.”

The Wilkeses bought the house at 302 Atlantic Avenue in September 2008 and started renovations two months later. The walkway wasn’t part of the plan, but when the steps leading to the deck were condemned, their replacement and the attached walkway became part of the project.

Wilkes told the appeals board the 6-foot width was based on a tutorial on the town’s website that referred to state regulations for beachfront walkways. The state allows 6 feet; the town allows 4.

They said their builder relied on a tutorial posted on the town’s website. It referred to the state rule on walkways.

“From the start, we tried to work it out,” Singleton said.

The Wilkeses sought a variance. It was denied. They appealed to the Circuit Court. Hyman ruled in July 2011 that the record of the Board of Zoning Appeals was incomplete and ordered a new hearing. He also ordered the town and the owners to return to mediation.

“I find it surprising and disappointing that this matter has not been resolved by mediation and settlement,” Hyman said in that decision. He kept jurisdiction over the case. One reason it took so long to get the second ruling was it was hard to schedule a time when Hyman, Singleton, Town Attorney David DuRant and Nate Fata, attorney for the appeals board, could all attend a hearing.

The second mediation session ended with an impasse. The Wilkeses went back to the appeals board.

Their offer to the town was to either move the railings on the walkway or add seating that would reduce the walkable width to 4 feet. The town said that wouldn’t comply with the zoning ordinance.

The appeals board denied the second request for a variance, pointing out that it didn’t meet any of the legal criteria: exceptional conditions on the property; an unnecessary hardship; conditions that are unique to the lot; and no harm to the intent of the ordinance if granted.

The Wilkeses again appealed to the Circuit Court, saying the appeals board made several errors in law including “erroneously concluding that the maximum walkway width is the width of the supporting structure rather than the effective walkway width.”

They also noted that information provided to the appeals board showing there are 41 houses on the island with 6-foot-wide walkways wasn’t included in the board’s record. And they said the board violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by going into an “executive session” to deliberate.

Those issues weren’t addressed in the three-page order. It addressed the failure to get a permit and affirmed that the variance request didn’t meet the criteria. “The walkway shall be reduced to 4 feet in width and brought into compliance,” Hyman said.

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