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Highway 17: Planning Commission recommends cut in building setback to 50 feet

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The Georgetown County Planning Commission voted 4-2 this week to recommend allowing buildings along Highway 17 to move close to the road. It is now up to County Council to decide whether to reduce the building setback from 90 feet to 50 feet.

Georgetown County Council Member Steve Goggans requested a review of the setback rule, saying the yard requirement posed a hardship on many property owners. He said nonconforming property damaged beyond 70 percent can not be rebuilt on its footprint. The Hammock Shops, Village Shops, Waverly Place, Landolfi’s, Frank’s Restaurant, Pawleys Island Supply, Pawleys Island Business Center and Oak Lea in the Pawleys Island area are all within 90 feet.

Council Member John Thomas said he opposes changing the setback, claiming it’s being driven by business owners wanting to expand. He said reducing the setback would give the feeling of crowding rather than fostering a feeling of openness and create a hodgepodge for years to come. “The most important reason to keep the setback at 90 feet,” Thomas said, “is to prevent more unplanned population and traffic density on the Neck. Highway 17 through the Waccamaw Neck is unique in that there are essentially no alternative routes. There are already hundreds of land parcels approved but not developed. Allowing an extra 40 feet of width would allow construction of additional buildings closer to Highway 17 resulting in more people, more traffic, more congestion and more density. We want to be pro-business development using already approved parcels, but in a responsible way.”

Thomas was among a dozen people who spoke against the proposal at a hearing Thursday. Two people spoke for the change, which was recommended by the county planning staff.

Opponents said the change will increase density and the look of the Waccamaw Neck. The setback applies to all of Highway 17 in Georgetown County and parts of Highway 701.

Goggans, who didn’t attend, said the aesthetics, the scale and streetscape are better with buildings closer to the road with parking, stormwater drainage and connectivity to adjoining parcels in back. Changing the setback to 50 feet wouldn’t affect density, he said, because the requirements of parking, open space and landscaping would still apply.

Goggans said reducing the setback would begin to set the table for making Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach and Murrells Inlet more walkable communities through pedestrian infrastructure and bike paths. “That in turn would reduce traffic and accommodate tourists,” he said. “Finally, I think it looks better. Look at the setbacks at 90 feet and look at where they are less, and more often than not you like from an aesthetic standpoint where the structures are less than 90 feet: Hammock Shops, Island Shops, Pawleys Island Business Center and Oak Lea. When you get to Fresh Market and the Sweetgrass buildings, they are pushed back with giant parking lots. To me, there’s no comparison esthetically.”

Part of the planning staff’s logic for eliminating the 90-foot buffer is that it applies to all portions of Highway 17, except in the city of Georgetown, from the Horry County line to the Charleston County line, as well as parts of Highway 701 created when the county was rezoned in 2008.

Thomas said the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor should be considered separately. “The Neck is unique from the rest of the county in that there are no alternate routes to Highway 17,” he said. Goggans said he’s focussed on the Waccamaw Neck, and would defer to council members wishes’ on setbacks in other parts of the county.

In a report to the commission, the county planning staff said some of the reasoning for the 90-foot setback is flawed. Frontage roads are no longer in the plans for the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor. If a six-lane road becomes necessary, the 50-foot setback is adequate. The larger setback has a negligible effect on noise as measured by staff members.

Thomas called the frontage road argument “specious” and said the 90-foot setback will be beneficial if Highway 17 has to be widened someday. “While a road widening project might fit in the existing right-of-way, having buildings right next to a six-lane major arterial roadway would not enhance the shopping or dining experience of visitors or residents,” he said.

The report says the 90-foot setback has created nonconforming buildings. County law says, “the nonconforming building or land use shall not be ... repaired, rebuilt or altered after damage exceeding 70 percent of its replacement cost at the time of destruction, regardless of intent.”

The county staff says there are 177 buildings in the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor inside the 90-foot setback. Of these, 83 are legal encroachments, meaning they are part of a “Planned Development” with a lesser setback requirement or received a variance. Ninety-four of these buildings are nonconforming, meaning they could not be rebuilt if damaged beyond 70 percent of their market value. Thirty-six of the buildings are single-family homes.

Goggans said 52 percent of buildings on Highway 17 are within 90 feet, some less than 50. “Historic land use patterns are less than 50,” he said. Until five years ago, “Planned Developments” were allowed exemptions from the 90-foot setback rule. “It has been our policy or practice, more or less, to have 50 feet anyway,” Goggans said. “Ninety feet are required now for a PUD. You couldn’t do an Oak Lea today.

“The single most important priority has to do with the fact we’ve rendered more than 52 percent of buildings nonconforming. That to me is kind of a crazy land use policy. If we have a hurricane or other disaster that takes out a big chunk of our buildings, the county could find itself in litigation.”

The staff’s report says it would be bad planning to allow nonconforming buildings to simply be rebuilt in the same location if damaged. “The very reason zoning ordinances include provisions dealing with nonconforming properties and uses is to benefit the community by bringing nonconforming properties into compliance when the opportunity arises,” the recommendation says. “If a person believes a building currently located 50 feet from the front property line is not creating any detrimental effects and should be allowed to be reconstructed in the same spot, then a new building built next door, 50 feet from the property line should not cause any ill effects. The legality of such an action that affects such a large number of property owners but excludes others is questionable. Enforcement of this provision would also be very difficult due to differing setbacks on adjacent parcels.”

The staff report says the 90-foot setback is the largest in the county. It’s 50 feet for heavy industry and 90 feet for a small retail store on Highway 17. “This does not seem logical,” the report said. Communities are bringing buildings closer to roads to create a neighborhood feel, the report says. The Mount Pleasant Urban Corridor District has a 20- to 30-foot front setback in most areas. “It would be best,” the recommendation says, “if these approved buildings were closer to their front property lines to increase their visibility instead of being obscured by parking lots.”

Thomas objects to comparisons with Mount Pleasant to justify lesser setbacks. “Highway 17 through Mount Pleasant is six through lanes with additional right and left turn lanes, frontage roads along some sections, and bridged overpasses at several intersections,” he said. “There are some Mount Pleasant exemplars that could be implemented on the Neck. The Market at Oakland on Highway 17 and Belle Hall Shopping Center on Long Point Road are virtually invisible from the highway due to setback and landscaping. On the Neck, The Litchfield Market Village is an excellent example of what the Pawleys area could look like.”

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