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Pawleys Island: Agent of ‘subtle change’ named town’s top citizen

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Ryan Fabbri is all for transparency. The Pawleys Island administrator added Town Council agendas and minutes to the town’s redesigned website along with other documents for public review.

The Pawleys Island Civic Association takes a different view.

The civic group named Fabbri the Citizen of the Year at its annual meeting over the weekend. “That was a shock,” he said. “I didn’t see that coming.” He came to the meeting at the Pawleys Island Chapel to provide an update on town projects. Seated on the front row, his jaw fell and his eyebrows rose.

The civic association started the effort that led to the creation of the town in 1985. Its annual meeting remains a barometer of how local government is faring. Members of the association board also serve on the town’s boards and commissions. The award was both recognition for the work Fabbri has done since he was named administrator last year and for the concept of hiring someone to run the town.

“I think it’s validation of the council’s decision,” Mayor Bill Otis said. For 18 of his 20 years as mayor he was the unpaid administrator, like his predecessors. “I hope it’s a validation of my decision to present him to council as my pick.”

Although the mayor is an ex officio member of the civic association board, Otis wasn’t part of the decision on Citizen of the Year, an award he received in 2011 under the same cloak of secrecy. “What means the most to me is that the mayor didn’t have anything to do with it,” Fabbri said. “I mean that in a good way. He’s my biggest supporter.”

The civic association has a history of voting with its plaques. It gave the Citizen of the Year award collectively to the town’s seven full-time employees in 2012. Police Chief Guy Osborne got the award in 2010. Nate Porchia, the town’s one-man public works department, was the 2007 recipient. He died in 2009. Osborne died last year.

Fabbri was hired in 2013 as assistant administrator and to take charge of its flood insurance program. The Community Rating System is a federal program that gives communities discounts on flood insurance premiums in exchange for adopting measures to make structures more resistant to storm damage. The Planning Commission and Town Council adopted Fabbri’s proposal to raise new structures an extra foot. The town now has a Class 6 rating, worth a 20 percent discount. Its goal is a Class 4 rating and a 30 percent discount.

“My objective from the beginning was to protect the knowledge base that I’d built up over the years. The history of what goes on and why it’s gone on,” Otis said. “To protect the future as I hope any good management person would do in a company.”

Flood insurance remains on Fabbri’s agenda. The town’s rating is up for recertification by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But since a series of storms last fall caused significant erosion on the island’s beachfront, he has also taken charge of long-standing efforts to get more sand placed on the beach.

Fabbri moved to South Carolina from Chicago after his wife Angela got an advertising job in Myrtle Beach. She is now the marketing director at the Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors. He was a project manager for a construction company and that background proved a good fit with the town’s ongoing efforts to move electric and cable television lines underground. Work on the third and final phase of the utility project was due to start this week, but is still awaiting construction easements from 10 property owners.

Following last year’s storms, the town applied for state and federal permits to push up sand for a temporary dune. That took five months. The work was done in less than a month and came in under budget.

Now the town hopes to get a portion of $30 million in state beach nourishment funds to bring offshore sand to the island. A committee of property owners led by Council Member Rocky Holliday is reviewing the town’s options. “The beach is the town’s more important issue,” Fabbri said. “Without that, we don’t have a town. We don’t have anything. Retreat is not an option.”

To maintain a renourished beach and be eligible for federal funds to repair the kind of damage the town saw last year, it has to have an ongoing beach management plan. “It’s going to be our responsibility as a town to maintain it,” Fabbri said. “That will keep us eligible for FEMA assistance money. It’s almost like an insurance policy.”

Along with the existential threats, there are the routine problems like drainage. Knowing that the state Department of Transportation planned to repave the north end of Myrtle Avenue, the island’s main road, Fabbri got council to approve funds to hire an engineer to design a solution to persistent flooding. But DOT said it wanted to tackle the problem itself. And it did, leading Fabbri to hope that he can get the agency to address similar problems on other parts of the island.

“I do represent change, in a sense, but it’s subtle change,” Fabbri said. “There are certain principles that are steadfast. I know what those rigid items are that are not going to change, and I’m fine with that.” Those include limiting new construction to single-family homes and allowing no commercial development.

One thing he would like to change is relations between the island and the surrounding community. When he proposed a permit system for golf carts, it was seen as a way to keep people from the mainland off the island. “That’s the perception. It wasn’t my intent,” he said. He wants police to have a database of golf cart registrations to help enforce traffic and parking laws.

Fabbri believes the town could sponsor more activities, such as its Turtle Strut road race and kayak races. “We should look at other things. Not necessarily festivals,” he said, but he pointed out that the Pawleys Pavilion Reunion sponsored by Habitat for Humanity show what is possible. The argument he’s heard against events is that their appeal extends beyond the town limits. “My No. 1 priority is the interest of residents and people who own property,” Fabbri said. “But there’s a distinction between the island and the greater community. There’s almost a little barrier there.”

He lives in Litchfield Country Club with his wife and four children. They ride their golf cart to the beach like many other mainland residents. “My job is to care about everything that happens here,” he said. “Owning land here is not a prerequisite to caring for it.”

The town should be more welcoming, he said. “If I can do one thing in my time here, that would be one thing I would like to change.” But he added, “it’s a delicate balance.”

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