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Highway 17: In another shift, council scuttles plan to cut 90-foot setback

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Building setbacks along Highway 17 and parts of Highway 701 through Georgetown County will remain 90 feet after County Council voted 5-2 Tuesday against an ordinance to reduce it to 50 feet.

Council’s chambers were packed with supporters from both sides of the issue, and they spoke during an extended public comment period about the pros and cons of reducing the setback and allowing buildings 40 feet closer to the road. Although the setback applies across the county, the issue only drew speakers from the Waccamaw Neck.

The predominant argument for reducing the setback was the large number of non-conforming structures — businesses as well as houses — that could not be rebuilt without a variance if damaged beyond 70 percent of their value.

In addition, Council Member Steve Goggans proposed reducing the setback as a first step in making the Waccamaw Neck a more walkable community with sidewalks and bike paths along Highway 17 linking businesses. Landscaping, he said, would replace some of the parking lots in front of new business developments if they were allowed to build closer to the highway and the community would develop more curb appeal.

“Come on, man,” said Leon Rice, president of Preserve Murrells Inlet. “Everybody knows there will be less area for such amenities.” He asked council members to represent the overwhelming number of people affected rather than special interests.

Rice’s comments, like many others during the night, drew applause and shouts from the standing-room-only crowd. Most members of the audience stood when opening speaker Bob Plowden asked them to show County Council how many supported keeping the setback at 90 feet.

The setback issue has had its twists and turns as the ordinance made its way through the Planning Commission, which recommended the change, a council committee meeting where members agreed to include the setback in an upcoming highway study and a subsequent meeting where the full council reversed the committee decision. That brought the 50-foot setback to a vote this week for the second of three readings.

Karen Yaniga, who lives off the South Causeway on Rybolt Road, said she felt bewilderment and dismay when council members reversed their decision to include the setback in a study being done by the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study. “You made a wise decision to include it in the study,” she said. “Nothing changed in a week. It left the community in shock that it happened and by how it was done.”

Yaniga, like other supporters of the 90-foot setback Tuesday, wanted protections built in for non-conforming structures. Grandfather them, said Frank D’Amato, president of the Tradition Property Owners Association. “I’ve been listening to businesses argue about the danger if they had a catastrophe. The argument is ridiculous. Grandfather the businesses. I’m amazed they would argue against residents of the community who are their customers. The residents of the Neck are telling you we do not want to change the 90 feet. A grandfather clause makes everybody happy.”

County planning director Boyd Johnson recommended against a blanket grandfather clause for structures along the highways with 90-foot setbacks. It could open the door to legal challenges because property owners would be treated differently, he said.

David Gundling, an attorney, said families, particularly those in the black community, would be hurt by maintaining the 90-foot setback. He said forbidding houses or businesses to be rebuilt would result in “takings” whereby the county would have to buy the land. He pointed out the old Club 17 operated by Jerome Ford is today just “an ugly foundation” after being destroyed by fire. “It was part of the character and charm of Pawleys Island,” Gundling said. He remembered Ford cooking chicken on July 4 for customers. “He couldn’t rebuild because of the setback,” Gundling said.

The club was also a commercial use on a lot zoned for residential use.

As Gundling tried to continue his remarks about the character of Pawleys Island being in its older developments like the Hammock Shops and Island Shops, hecklers in the back of the room interrupted him. He left the microphone in frustration when they refused to stop.

Bob Mims, owner of Litchfield Beach Fish House, said Goggans was trying to correct an inequity on Highway 17. “Fifty-foot setbacks have been granted to various pieces of property up and down the Neck,” he said. “It’s an accordion effect between 50 feet and 90 feet.” He said he was concerned that he would not be allowed to rebuild his restaurant because a variance is not easy to get. “Those of you wanting it to look like Mount Pleasant and Hilton Head,” he said, “it’s not going to happen.”

Vida Miller, a former state representative and owner of an art gallery on the highway, presented a petition signed by 150 business owners who supported changing the setback to 50 feet. John Henry Whitmire, a jeweler in the Hammock Shops, said he likes having buildings closer to the highway. He said the parking lots of buildings with 90-foot setbacks look like “one used car lot after another.”

Jan Devereux, co-owner of the Island Shops and other property, said her mortgage payments will continue if her buildings were destroyed and she couldn’t rebuild. She said the county’s tax income would go down, and she would be forced to seek a legal remedy. Dana Arneman, manager of Dunes Realty in Litchfield and chairman of the county Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee, said the county would lose accommodations, sales and hospitality taxes while damaged businesses seek variances.

Wendell Peacock, a land planner who designed the Island Shops “planned development,” said the county’s requirements for parking, landscaping and open space will continue to influence the size of buildings. “There’s no difference locating it at 50 feet,” he said. “There’s a better relationship between the building and street as parking moves to the sides and back.” Russ Campbell, former Litchfield Co. executive who is associated with Goggans’ architectural firm, said the 50-foot setback makes a “more functionally and physically attractive community.”

Henry Jobe of Litchfield By The Sea, citing the overwhelming mood of the room in favor of the 90-foot setback, encouraged the council chairman to ask anyone professionally involved in real estate to recuse themselves because of a conflict of interest.

“Those people,” Jobe said, “for their own protection should not be involved. Non-conflicting professions on the board should make the decision.”

In addition to Goggans, who also has a building company, Council Member Ron Charlton is involved in a housing development on Winyah Bay.

Tom Stickler of Hagley Estates, president of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations, whose 45 members oppose reducing the setback to 50 feet, called on the council to maintain the setback at 90 feet and study it in greater detail. Tom Leis, former president of the Litchfield Beautification Foundation, asked the council to keep the setback at 90 feet, and Mary Erickson said it should be studied and studied some more. “We don’t want to make a mistake,” she said.” Bill Renault, a Tradition Club resident who also serves on the county accommodations tax committee, said he had watched the urbanization of the Waccamaw Neck over 19 years and it has become “frightening.” There was no need to reduce the setback, he said.

After public comment ended and the council came to second reading on its agenda, Johnson outlined the staff’s reasoning for recommending the reduction of the setback to 50 feet. He said setbacks don’t drive density nearly as much as parking, open space and stormwater rules. He said larger setbacks encourage sprawl.

Goggans moved to approve the ordinance changing the setback to 50 feet and Leona Myers-Miller seconded it.

Council Member John Thomas said that to suggest changing the setback wouldn’t increase density “defies credulity” and listed four parcels along Highway 17 that would add as much as 15 percent to their buildable areas with the change. “We should not make such a significant policy decision without understanding the consequences,” Thomas said.

Council members then voted 5-2 against altering the setback to 50 feet. Goggans offered an amendment to his motion for more study and more public input. He still objected to a GSATS study but offered to include more study by county staff. The motion died for lack of a second, and the audience applauded.

Council Chairman Johnny Morant directed the planning staff to study ways to protect owners of non-conforming properties and report back within 90 days.

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