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Planning: Departing chairman’s tenure saw shift in commission’s role

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Brian Henry says he’s always thought of himself as thin-skinned, so the Georgetown County Planning Commission isn’t the first place you’d expect to find him. Last month, he completed eight years on the commission, serving the final four as chairman. He was part of a board that extended zoning to the rural areas of the county, denied approval to a Walmart at Pawleys Island and set limits on commercial signs along Highway 17.

County rules limit commission members to two four-year terms. Henry’s first term began before the Great Recession, when developers were planning large-scale projects for the western part of the county. After the national housing bubble burst, the commission’s agenda shrank and it started reviewing some of the rules, such as those for signs, that had been pushed aside during the boom times. He left the commission after it voted 5-0 to recommend County Council ban digital billboards along Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck.

“I’m leaving a high-functioning body,” Henry said. “It was that way before and that’s where I left it.”

He doesn’t second guess any of the commission’s decisions and doesn’t want any do-overs. But the public hearing over digital billboards left him wondering aloud about public involvement. Henry said he heard complaints about the digital billboard put up at Pawleys Island last year. Only one person spoke at last month’s hearing.

Perhaps residents were confident the commission would move ahead with the ban. “I think there’s a degree of apathy. They think their one voice isn’t going to make a difference,” Henry said. “People care about their back yard.”

It was his own back yard that first led him to the Planning Commission over a decade ago. He was concerned that installation of sewer lines would lead to high-density development in his neighborhood along the South Causeway. Henry and his wife Sassy own the Sea View Inn across the causeway on Pawleys Island. Then Lowe’s Home Improvements planned a big-box retail store on Highway 17 at the South Causeway. He joined the successful community effort to block that rezoning. “It’s just Myrtle Beach coming to Pawleys Island,” he said at the time.

Henry was in the audience at the 2005 public hearing on the Lowe’s rezoning. It filled the Howard Auditorium in Georgetown, the biggest audience for a commission meeting until the 2012 hearing on Walmart. “I remember being nervous in the Lowe’s crowd,” he said. That wasn’t the case when he chaired the Walmart hearing, where an estimated 1,300 people overflowed the Waccamaw High auditorium. “It was more of a character builder,” he said.

The hearing lasted nearly five hours. Fifty-four people spoke. A motion to deny the developer’s plan for a 119,500-square-foot building failed. The motion that passed accepted the plan, but capped the building size at 60,000 square feet.

Henry was among the shoppers at Publix, the grocery store that opened last week on the site once proposed for Walmart. The supermarket has 45,600 square feet.

“It wasn’t courageous,” Henry said of his position against big-box retailers. “The intensity of the debate. That was the hardest part.”

Commission members are required to take continuing education classes, but Henry said the process is mostly “learn as you go.”

As chairman, Henry said, he thought it was important to make sure people who came before the commission understood the process and how decisions were reached. “There are times when you have to be sensitive,” he said.

Regulating business signs was always a contentious issue, and one the commission grappled with twice before Henry brought it up last year.

He staked out his position in his first year on the commission, saying he favored a long-term approach that would change the rules, but let existing signs remain. If destroyed, the replacement signs would have to conform, but Henry said at the time that market conditions would be more likely to drive change.

“I’ll watch these signs,” Henry said last week. “It was putting a stake in the ground. People said it would never happen.” He thinks five to 10 years will see more monument-style signs with reduced illumination that are compatible with the design standards for commercial buildings.

A major disappointment during his time on the commission was the failure of County Council to adopt new tree regulations. Henry and other members want to protect significant hardwood trees on residential lots. The council rejected the idea.

“That was a very frustrating one,” Henry said.

Henry is president of the Waccamaw High Athletic Booster Club. He picked up an award as the school’s volunteer of the year last week. He wants to help improve facilities and opportunities for the school’s teams. As a volunteer position, it takes up more time than the Planning Commission, he said. It can also be contentious.

“The more you give of your time, the more visible you are and people are comfortable taking shots,” Henry said. But he has no plans to reduce his public profile. “I never want to go back to the place where I’m doing what they’re doing: complaining.”

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