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Highway 17: Council members divided over 90-foot setback

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Two Georgetown County Council representatives from the Waccamaw Neck disagreed this week over a proposal to review the 90-foot front setback rules on the Highway 17 commercial corridor.

Council Member Steve Goggans asked the county Planning Commission to review the rules and consider allowing buildings within 50 feet of the highway. Council Member John Thomas said he opposed changing the criteria and wanted planners to know the council was not united in its request.

“We’ve got a yard requirement that doesn’t match our existing land use, and, frankly, it forces hardship on property owners,” Goggans said in an interview on Wednesday. “During my campaign and certainly for a number of months since I’ve been elected this has been a pretty common request from various property owners who have had this concern for some time now. Every time you refinance this issue comes up, and it’s a problem with title insurance and mortgage loans. The worst case scenario is if a building in the setback is damaged beyond 50 percent, that property owner would be out of luck. The Hammock Shops, Village Shops, Waverly Place, Landolfi’s, Frank’s Restaurant, Pawleys Island Supply, Pawleys Island Business Center, Oak Lea in the Pawleys Island area are all within 90 feet.”

Thomas said Goggans proposal is being driven by business owners wanting to expand. “What this comes down to is whether we want this to be developer friendly, or whether we want to look out for the interests of the community and the people who live here,” he said.

Goggans said the original intent of the 90-foot setback was to make room for frontage roads parallel to Highway 17. Such roads are no longer feasible. He said the setback rule has varied between 50 and 90 feet since the inception of corridor standards.

“As we move forward as a community,” he said, “we want to avoid strip development. The 90-foot setback assures parking will be in the front versus the rear and creates esthetic issues.” He pointed to Dollar General as a building harmed by the 90-foot rule. “All you see is parking lot,” he said.

Goggans said allowing buildings within 50 feet of the street would make the community more walkable once sidewalks are built along Highway 17. “I know of no other community that has a 90-foot setback on its Main Street anywhere in coastal South Carolina,” Goggans said, “and I work in a lot of those communities.”

He said the aesthetics, the scale and streetscape are better with buildings closer to the road and more parking, stormwater drainage and connectivity to adjoining parcels in back.

Thomas said the 90-foot setback has been the intent of the council since at least 1997, and it probably originated in a 1978 zoning ordinance administered by Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments for the county.

“The intent and rationale for putting in place a 90-foot setback more than 35 years ago was valid then and it remains so today and should not be changed,” he said. The original zoning ordinance adopted the 90-foot setback to “provide adequate relief from noise, insure air quality for adjoining land uses, prevent the overcrowding of land, provide adequate off-street parking, allow adequate area for landscaping, facilitate firefighting, provide adequate visibility for ingress and egress and to maintain serenity and enhance the character of the area.”

Thomas said former planning director Al Burns tried to change the setback to 50 feet, but the Planning Commission voted unanimously against the proposal in February 2002. During Burns’ tenure, the county created “planned development” zoning districts on the Waccamaw Neck with 50-foot setbacks. “Those developments, like Pawleys Business Center, Oak Lea, and others went in but with substantial controversy,” Thomas said, “so County Council took action to plug that loophole.” An ordinance in 2007 declared “Planned Developments” must adhere to a 90-foot setback. “It was clearly County Council’s intent, call it ‘legislative intent,’ all along that setbacks along Waccamaw Neck Highway 17 shall be 90 feet regardless of the zoning district,” he said.

Thomas said 50-foot setbacks would do nothing to enhance the corridor’s character. “It would give the feeling of crowding rather than fostering a feeling of openness consistent with the ‘Lowcountry’ feel. There are nonconforming buildings that were mistakenly allowed to be built. Opening up the possibility of more buildings with a 50-foot setback would create a hodgepodge checkerboard look for many years to come.”

Thomas said reducing the setback would not push parking to the rear of buildings, any more than it has on non-conforming buildings. Another rationale for the 90-foot setback is the county’s Access Management Standards which requires interconnectivity between parcels. Retaining the 90-foot setback provides the most flexibility to deal with issues in the future, he added.

The council approved sending the proposal to the Planning Commission by a vote of 6-1 with Thomas the lone dissenter.

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