090717 Courts: Inlet group appeals variance for deck over oak roots
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Courts: Inlet group appeals variance for deck over oak roots

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A citizens group is challenging a variance that will allow a Murrells Inlet restaurant to build a deck over the roots of a live oak. Preserve Murrells Inlet and three area residents appealed to the Circuit Court last week to overturn the variance approved for the Costa Coastal Kitchen.

The Georgetown County Board of Zoning Appeals approved the variance to setback requirements in July, saying it wished to preserve the oak tree. Under the zoning ordinance, the restaurant could build a deck “at grade” without seeking a variance. That would smother the roots of the tree, said Jean Rothrock, a landscape architect and co-owner of Waccamaw Landscaping, who designed the project.

Members of Preserve Murrells Inlet told the appeals board they objected to the deck because it would set a precedent that would allow other restaurants along Business 17 to expand dining into their parking lots. Costa wants to create an outside waiting area for customers. Whether it can use the proposed deck for dining would depend on the amount of parking, according to Joanne Ochal, the county zoning administrator.

“I think saving the tree is very important,” board member Truitt Owens said, moving to grant the variance. “I probably need some help on the criteria.”

To get a variance, applicants must meet four criteria: their property has extraordinary conditions; nearby property doesn’t have similar conditions; complying with the zoning code would unreasonably restrict the use of their property; and granting the variance isn’t a detriment to the public good.

In its published findings, the board said, “The placement of the tree and the restaurants (sic) current location unreasonable (sic) restrict future expansion of the business.” Granting the variance for the deck “will allow a more eco-friendly environment for the existing tree. Also, the proposed deck would create a safer waiting area for customers.”

In their appeal to the court, Preserve Murrells Inlet and three neighbors – Lynn Chrapek, Martha Smith and Margaret Ann May – argue just the opposite, “that the property has been effectively used as a restaurant for more than 50 years.”

As to the tree and its root system, “there is nothing unique or exceptional about these conditions as they are common to every large, old live oak tree in Murrells Inlet.”

The opponents are represented by Jack Scoville, the mayor of Georgetown and a former county attorney.

The finding that the location of the tree and the restaurant restrict expansion is counter to state law, the opponents say. They cite a portion of state statute that reads: “The fact that property may be utilized more profitably, if a variance is granted, may not be considered grounds for a variance.”

The county tree ordinance protects the live oak from being cut, Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, told the appeals board in July. Without the variance, the owners of Costa could level the ground under the oak tree to provide seating. “But that would kill it,” he said.

Johnson is preparing an update to the tree ordinance that is intended to eliminate such inconsistencies. That followed a review of the ordinance, which was last revised in 2011, that was requested by County Council Member Steve Goggans.

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