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Highway 17: Residents oppose cut in building setbacks

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The 90-foot setback rule for Highway 17 was portrayed at a Georgetown County Planning Commission meeting last week as both the goose that lays the economy’s golden eggs and a ticking time bomb that threatens court action if the owner of a non-conforming property is denied permission to rebuild after a disaster.

Georgetown County Council asked planners to consider reducing the setback on Highway 17 throughout the county and part of Highway 701 to 50 feet at the request of Council Member Steve Goggans. Commission members sided with the county planning staff’s recommendation to reduce the setback. County Council will consider the change during three readings beginning Nov. 10.

A majority of the residents who spoke during the planning commission’s public hearing were against the setback reduction. Some of those feared it

See “Highway 17,” Page 4

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might change the character of the Waccamaw Neck; others saw commercial motives behind the proposal.

Goggans had said moving buildings closer to the road would be the first step in developing a “walkable community” and begin a trend of moving parking lots and retention ponds to the rear of lots. Council Member John Thomas opposed the idea, saying the 90-foot setback promotes a feeling of openness that makes the Waccamaw Neck different and provides the most flexibility for the highway.

County planning director Boyd Johnson presented the staff’s recommendation. He said 177 buildings on the Waccamaw Neck are not in compliance with the 90-foot setback, including 94 that are non-conforming and could not be rebuilt without a variance if they are 70 percent destroyed. Some have used 50 percent as the benchmark for needing a variance, but the ordinance, according to Johnson, was changed to 70 percent. Among the non-conforming structures are 36 single family houses.

Johnson said good planning brings non-conforming buildings into compliance rather than granting blanket exceptions for them to be rebuilt. He said preventing a property owner from rebuilding because of the setback could lead the county into court.

Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Krauss said she’s heard no clamoring for frontage roads through Pawleys Island, one reason to keep a 90-foot setback. A 50-foot setback would allow room for road widening and kill any plan for an unwanted frontage road, she said.

Commission member Lee Shoulette said the staff’s report was not up to its usual standards, perhaps because of the flooding this month that caused such a disruption as county employees were pressed into emergency services. Shoulette said a typical staff recommendation discusses the implications of the actions under consideration. “You usually offer a choice for the commission to make,” he said. “All you gave us as a recommendation is the 50-foot setback. There was no creative suggestion on the part of staff.”

Shoulette said the report was silent on the net density gain of buildable area along Highway 17. An additional 40 feet on each side of the road adds 10 acres per mile. “Significant,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Shoulette said the restriction on rebuilding as presented in the report and by proponents of reducing the setback was “a game a fear.” He said buildings can be grandfathered and variances approved to rebuild if lots on the highway are too narrow.

He also took exception to the idea that the 90-foot setback was part of a plan for frontage roads. “We never had discussions about frontage roads,” he said. “Where’s that come from now?”

Commission member Johnny Weaver said frontage roads are out of the question now, and the county would never condemn a business like the Hammock Shops because it intrudes into the 90-foot setback. Weaver said it is more than likely that buildings or houses destroyed by fire or natural disaster would be granted variances. The problem he had with the 90-foot setback was its inequality with so many non-conforming properties.

Some of the people commenting during the public hearing feared increasing density if the setback were reduced. Gary Weinreich of Murrells Inlet said houses could be gobbled up by developers as soon as the parcels become eligible for commercial use by virtue of the reduced setback. Bert Cassels, a former member of the Planning Commission, said the change would lead to more structures close to Highway 17, making it harder to navigate. It would be “a mistake that will never be reversed,” he said. Ladd Dezendorf, president of the Litchfield Beach Property Owners Association, said the reduction in setback would lead to “more building, more traffic, more density, more people and more trouble.” He said it would make the Waccamaw Neck look more like Myrtle Beach and chase tourists away.

Johnson said changing the setback wouldn’t affect density or the size of buildings. Parking and landscaping requirements won’t change, he said. Builders have to leave room for trash dumpsters and stormwater ponds. “None of those goes away,” he said. “I can’t think of a case of anybody walking in our office trying to build the biggest building possible. You build what you need. The market will dictate that. I doubt somebody builds an extra 4,000 square feet because a bigger building requires more parking.”

Jan Devereux recognized herself as “the odd man out” when it was her turn to speak at the public hearing. She said Pawleys Island is slowly but surely losing its charm. “Older buildings closer to the highway have much of the charm,” she said. “People come for Franks, the Hammock Shops, Island Shops, Oak Lea and Downtown Pawleys. Not Dollar General and Lowes.” She said she has 31 commercial tenants, and nobody has ever complained about noise from the highway.

David Gundling, her attorney, called the planning staff’s report very thorough. He said the 90-foot rule would lead to some structures that can’t be rebuilt. One solution is to permanently grandfather those buildings, but that could lead to adjacent landowners complaining about being treated differently. Besides, he said, the community’s appearance would be improved with a 50-foot setback.

Peg Howell, wife of Council Member Thomas, said she didn’t see any reason to change the setback. It’s what attracted her to Litchfield Beach. “It’s more important that the Planning Commission consider the source of the proposal to reduce the setback and perhaps the personal motives involved by the person who has supported the proposal,” she said.

Bill McElroy, a resident of the Tradition Club, was more pointed in his criticism of Goggans. “It’s very strange that the person who was against the median because it hurts business wants to move this thing to 50 feet and hurt those businesses some more. I don’t understand it. It’s all personal and selfish.”

Tom Leis of River Club, president of the Litchfield Beautification Foundation and a member of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations, said he would encourage POA members to oppose the setback change when they meet Monday. “The look and feel of moving closer to the road is not something that would be appealing to anybody,” Leis said.

Leon Rice of Wachesaw Plantation said there are two things that have kept the Waccamaw Neck distinctive: the 35-foot height restriction and the 90-foot setback. He said the setback reduction was a “rouse by developers” to open up 40 feet of land that is now undevelopable. He asked the commission members to consider the staff’s report but not to follow it.

Commission member Zach Grate moved to accept the staff’s recommendation, and Weaver seconded the motion. The commission recommended reducing the setback to 50 feet by a vote of 4-2 with Grate, Weaver, Krauss and Freddie Hill in favor and Shoulette and Norma Grant opposed.

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