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Pawleys at 30: Mayor is agent of change – and its biggest foe

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The state highway department used to mow the grass along the roads on Pawleys Island twice a year. After Bill Otis was elected mayor, the town hired someone to keep the roadsides trim. “It’s a small thing, but it’s representative of a lot of smaller things Town Council has done,” he said.

The central paradox of the town of Pawleys Island is that 30 years of change that began with the vote to incorporate on Aug. 27, 1985, have helped keep the island from changing. Otis, elected to Town Council 20 years ago, is the town’s longest serving official. He became mayor two years later and is on track to win a 10th two-year term in a November election that is likely to be uncontested and so won’t require voters to vote. He is the chief architect of change and its biggest foe.

Zoning was the issue that led to the vote to form the town. The Pawleys Island Civic Association sponsored the initiative after watching Georgetown County change the zoning for new developments in Litchfield. Bill Hancock, the association president at the time, said the goal was “to save our island from rapacious development overtaking us from all sides.”

In August 1985, Otis was living in Columbia, “running and building a business,” he said. “Lumber and some other things.” He and his wife Alice were raising two teen-age sons. They recently calculated they had attended 251 school sporting events. “I was aware of incorporation, but not involved,” Otis said. “I thought it was a good idea. I though Pawleys had to control its own zoning.”

None of the 121 voters in the referendum wanted Pawleys Island to change. They disagreed about the method. The vote was 73-47, which included selecting a name for the town. A couple of write-ins illustrated the divide. “Gray Man’s Tears” was one. “Pawleys Island As It Was Originally” was another.

In spite of the dire predictions of incorporation opponents, the town of Pawleys Island is notable for what it doesn’t have: a big staff, a fleet of vehicles, a fire department, a jail and, perhaps most important, a municipal property tax. It also doesn’t have what supporters of incorporation feared most: high-rise and high-density development. “No question we would have had those,” Otis said.

Land use remains a priority, with the town debating ways to control the scale of new construction as older homes are torn down to make way for new ones. And the town has remained active in zoning issues outside its boundaries, helping fund opposition to big-box retail stores on Highway 17. “Pawleys Island property owners probably contributed 80 percent of the money to the opposition,” Otis said, adding that “people in the community made it happen.”

Now, maintaining the beachfront has become the top issue facing the town, Otis said. His hope – “somewhere between hope and prayer,” he said – is to complete a island-wide beach nourishment projects. The town has done two smaller projects, one involving dredging sand shoals from Pawleys Creek, but a major project approved by the Army Corps of Engineers has failed to get funding from Congress. Meanwhile the town has accumulated $6.7 million in cash to fund its share of the project or for emergency repairs in case of a major hurricane.

The town has built up its surplus from accommodations tax collections. The creation of the state tax in 1984 allowed the town to be formed without a property tax. When the state allowed local governments to collect a tax on short-term rentals, Pawleys Island adopted the tax even though it was already running a surplus because the revenue would have gone to Georgetown County otherwise.

A five-officer police department is the town’s biggest expense. This year it added a full-time administrator, Ryan Fabbri. The mayor had previously run town government with the approval of the council. The town clerk, Diane Allen, is the only other full-time employee.

“A beachfront community is a much more complicated thing than it was 20 years ago,” Otis said. “There’s more to keep up with.”

He also said the administrator will provide “institutional memory” when the day comes for him to step down.

Otis first came to the island in 1946 when he was 6. His parents rented a house with another family from Columbia. Five years later, his father bought two houses on Myrtle Avenue for $16,500. He later acquired the lot where Otis and his wife built their house.

Otis spent all his summers on Pawleys, learning to fish and run a boat. He made friends with the kids from Georgetown whose families had summer homes on the island. He never learned to surf. “I guess I was too busy fishing,” Otis said.

He got involved in town politics in 1995 after the Town Council under Mayor Julian Kelly voted to annex the 1,900-acre Prince George tract on the mainland. It was seen as a way to thwart Georgetown County, which wanted the developers to provide public beach access.

The annexation spawned lawsuits. “Pawleys Island was making the national news in the worst kind of way,” Otis said.

Where once his blood pressure dropped when he drove across the causeways, now it was rising.

“They were changing the customs and culture of Pawleys Island,” Otis said.

In 1997, Kelly was suspended from office after his arrest for threatening a newspaper reporter. Otis announced his bid for mayor saying he wanted to return “boring government” to the town.

The suits were resolved and the council voted to restore the town boundaries even before the election, but hard feelings remained between Kelly’s supporters and his critics.

“It took a couple of years,” Otis said. “We had basically resolved the issues.”

One legacy of the Prince George era was a vote to make council terms two years rather than four.

“When people are unhappy, these two-year election cycles put them in a position to change things,” Otis said.

In 2004, the Town Council adopted a mission statement. It’s still valid, Otis said. It begins: “Pawleys Island has a unique heritage of history, gentleness and tranquility and the Town Council’s mission will be to preserve and protect this heritage.”

The town has been compared to a concierge service by some employees. “Why should government be for its constituents a concierge service?” Otis said. It does things that the residents and property owners can’t do for themselves.

He said improved flood rules that lower insurance premiums are an example, saving $250,000 to $300,000. “If the naysayers could see that …,” Otis said.

They would certainly be pleased. A year after the incorporation vote, the critics said they supported the new town.

Otis said he has continued in office because “I sensed a lot of appreciation for what we have done as an island to keep things as they are. People see Pawleys as so unique they are appreciative of it being protected.”

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