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Pawleys Island: Longest-serving mayor will step down after 20 years

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis will step down at the end of the year after 20 years in the office. He fought back tears as he read a prepared statement to Town Council members at the close of their monthly meeting this week in the Pawleys Island Chapel. His wife Alice was the only member of the public in the audience.

“For several election cycles, Alice and I have discussed if I should run for mayor again, recognizing there is a point at which that decision would be appropriate. I now believe the stage is set for a smooth transition of leadership of our town. Alice and I have, therefore, decided that this 20th year will be my last one as mayor of Pawleys Island,” Otis said.

The announcement left the council and town staff at a loss for words. “That’s a show-stopper,” Council Member Mike Adams said at last.

“It’s the right time,” Otis said.

“Wow. I didn’t see that coming,” Council Member Sarah Zimmerman said.

Otis is the longest serving mayor of the town that was formed in 1985. For most of that time, the mayor was also the town administrator with the consent of the council. That changed with the hiring of Ryan Fabbri in 2013 as assistant administrator. He became administrator in June 2015. “Ryan has developed a clear understanding of the background of the town and its culture and has demonstrated his excellent abilities as its administrator,” Otis told council. Fabbri was named Citizen of the Year in 2016 by the Pawleys Island Civic Association. Otis received the award in 2011.

Otis first came to Pawleys Island in 1946 when his family rented a beach house with friends from Columbia. His father later bought the property on Myrtle Avenue where Otis and his wife still live. He got involved in town politics in 1995 when the town annexed the 1,900-acre Prince George tract on the mainland across from the island’s south end. The move was seen as an attempt to thwart Georgetown County’s attempt to get beach access from the tract’s developers.

Otis was elected to Town Council that year. In 1997, Mayor Julian Kelly was suspended by the governor following his arrest for threatening a newspaper reporter. Otis ran for mayor promising to return “boring government” to the island. The town hasn’t had a contested election since 2003. State law allows towns to skip elections when they aren’t contested. Island voters, about 100 in number, last went to the polls in 2005.

Hurricanes in October 2015 and 2016 caused more change on the island than it had seen in the past 20 years, Otis said. “We, and our property owners, have met those challenges together,” he told council.

The town is now planning a project to put 900,000 cubic yards of offshore sand on the island’s beachfront at an estimated cost of $13 million. The council this week approved a resolution that will allow the town to borrow up to $2 million in order to get $6.2 million in matching funds from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism for the work. The town will also commit $5 million accumulated from its municipal accommodations tax to the project.

“These numbers are maxing out what the town can do,” Fabbri told council members before the vote and before Otis announced his plans. “We’re looking at spending every single dollar that’s in that account and then going millions of dollars in debt.” Future budgets will have no cushion, he said.

The project will leave the island with a dry sand beach at high tide and make the town eligible for federal aid to rebuild the beach if it is damaged by future storms. “He’s right,” Otis said, but added that the town adopted the local accommodations tax specifically to fund beach management projects.

In announcing his decision not to run for another term, Otis said “there will continue to be many challenges in the next few years.” Pawleys plans to build a new Town Hall to replace the building damaged by Hurricane Matthew. It is also looking at measures to reduce flood damage to island homes in order to get better rates from federally-subsidized flood insurance. “The town of Pawleys Island is now in a good position as an organization, with a professional administrator in place and a strong council, to meet the challenges we face,” Otis said.

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