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Pawleys Island: Not too big or too small in town review of house sizes

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island is in the midst of a building boom of sorts, with two housing starts in the last two months. But the town is wrestling with scale of the new buildings and others that might follow. The new houses are over 8,500 square feet.

“There are no more cottages on Pawleys Island,” Town Council Member Glennie Tarbox said. The new construction is near his house on the north end and the lots are large by island standards, about half an acre.

No house on Pawleys Island can have more than 4,000 square feet of heated space. The new houses have large areas of covered porches and open decks, said Jimmy McCants, who chairs the town Planning Commission. The commission agreed last week to review options for limiting the overall size of structures.

There are also questions about size at the other end of the scale. Along with its cap of 4,000 square feet, the town zoning ordinance allows property owners a minimum of 2,000 square feet, provided that they can meet building setbacks from the edge of their lot. Yet construction is also constrained by a “floor area ratio.” The effect is that an owner who could build a 2,000 square foot house with one story wouldn’t be able build a 4,000 square foot home with two stories, said Ryan Fabbri, the town administrator. “I just don’t think that’s fair,” he said.

Commission members agreed after he showed them an example of a 5,500 square foot lot. Two rules apply. The lot can’t have over 40 percent impervious surface. The town adopted that to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff. And floor area ratio limits the heated living space to 40 percent of the lot size. So on this lot, the owner could build a 2,200-square-foot home, Fabbri said.

That home could be on two levels, but it couldn’t have a second floor that allowed the owner the maximum of 4,000 square feet. “I feel it penalizes the smaller lots,” he said.

Mayor Bill Otis said the rule on floor area ratio has never been appealed, but that may happen with one project that is pending.

There are 177 lots on the island that are smaller than 10,000 square feet, Fabbri said. With very few vacant lots, new construction is likely to come from owners tearing down or expanding existing houses. It was concern about construction on small lots that led to the rules, Otis said.

“To build bigger houses on small lots was not in the town’s best interest,” he said, recalling the Planning Commission discussion at the time. The town didn’t want “mini-hotels” like those being built at Garden City.

Without the floor area ratio, it would be possible to have two story houses on small lots that, because of the building setbacks, would be only 8 feet apart.

“The only way I see to do it is to change the setbacks,” commission member Buddy Keller said.

“That just makes skinnier houses,” commission member Fran Green said.

Since the rules were adopted the value of property on the island has gone up, commission member Rocky Holliday said. “You’ve got this mismatch that affects the property value,” he said.

The rules were also an attempt to control the look of new construction without adopting an architectural code, Otis said. “Times change; things change” so the commission needs to review the ordinance, he said.

And there’s one other factor. Some creekfront lots include the salt marsh in their boundaries. Those lots may have less buildable area than an interior lot, but using the floor area ratio that considers the whole lot, the owners may be able to build bigger houses.

“That’s ridiculous,” commission member Bill Doar said.

The commission will ask staff at Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments to come up with some alternatives to the current rules.

Commission member Ed Fox noted that large porches are part of the character of traditional Pawleys Island homes. “Summer Academy has large porches and it looks great,” he said. “It’s all this other stuff.”

Otis pointed out that traditional porches are only one story. The new ones are two stories.

“Y’all have some complicated stuff,” Keller said.

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