Sunbelt Ventures met with representatives from the S.C. Environmental Law Project and the Coastal Conservation League on Thursday morning about plans to redevelop Pawleys Plaza.
The Environmental Law Project and the Conservation League threatened legal action after Sunbelt announced plans to build a 119,500-square-foot store on the site near the North Causeway at Pawleys Island.
Sunbelt is now investigating its options after the Georgetown County Planning Commission sent the proposal to County Council with a recommendation that it conform to the county ordinance that restricts buildings in the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor Overlay Zone to no more than 60,000 square feet if they are within 500 feet of Highway 17.
“I don’t think anyone has changed their position,” Nancy Cave of the Conservation League said after meeting with Sunbelt. “We feel that the ordinance needs to be followed, that the community has spoken and when the overlay zone was passed it was in response to what the community wanted.”
The county settled on a 45,000-square-foot limit after Lowe’s Home Improvement tried to build a big box store on Highway 17 at the South Causeway in 2005. That size was chosen because it was representative of an average grocery store, County Council member Bob Anderson said.
The ordinance was later amended to 60,000 square feet, and a section was added to cover stores visible from the highway, which closed what some people considered a loophole.
Anderson and Cave both said they have no desire to dictate what stores will be in the plaza if it is redeveloped.
Cave added that the League would have no reason to oppose the plan as long as it follows the law.
SueAnn Crawford, chairman of Don’t Box the Neck, did not attend Thursday’s meeting, and sees no benefit of sitting down with Sunbelt.
“We think we had a victory at the Planning Commission meeting and we support it,” Crawford said. “We think it was a wonderful decision.”
Cave said she told the Sunbelt representatives if they had met with community leaders earlier they would have realized how strong the opposition was going to be.
“If they would have done that they would have heard loud and clear that the community thought that they won the fight [against big-box stores] and didn’t think they’d have to fight again,” Cave said.
Crawford was not surprised that Sunbelt kept the plan under wraps while working with the county planning staff.
“They were planning to get it through without much notice,” she said.
“They thought when they had staff’s approval of what they were doing they had the thing made and that’s not the case,” Anderson said.
He doesn’t believe county staff was pushing for the development as some opponents have claimed.
“Staff had no wish for this thing to go one way or another,” he said.
The Pawleys Plaza rezoning now goes to County Council, which has four options: approve it as recommended by the Planning Commission, deny it, approve it with changes, or send it back to the Planning Commission.
County Planning Director Boyd Johnson said it is not unusual for Council to make “minor tweaks” to projects.
If Council denies the plan, Sunbelt could not resubmit the same plan for one year. However, if Sunbelt changed the plan it would not have to wait a year to go back to Council.
County Council only meets once in November and December, so Council will give the rezoning first reading by title only at its Nov. 13th meeting. A public hearing will be held on Dec. 11, at which time Council will vote. The final decision will be Jan. 8 at third reading.
Crawford said she is keeping Don’t Box the Neck supporters “informed and motivated.” The group is using newspaper advertisements and social media to rally members to attend the December meeting.
Anderson would like to see the plaza redeveloped.
“We need to fix that problem,” he said. “Hopefully in the end [Council will] do something that makes sense.”
In a press release on Tuesday, Sunbelt addressed some of the issues that were brought up at the Planning Commission meeting:
• Sunbelt called the “Don’t Box the Neck” group “well organized and outspoken,” but a “vocal minority” in the county.
“The Silent Majority are clearly the ones that need the jobs, the increased property and sales taxes and the other benefits of the redevelopment,” the release states.
• Sunbelt said three of the five Planning Commission members supported the redevelopment project, and Marvin Neal tried to make a motion to approve the project “exactly as recommended in the staff report with the only condition being the addition of a bike path and buffer in front.”
It is Sunbelt’s opinion that chairman Brian Henry “maneuvered” to change Neal’s motion, but in the end, County Council is not bound by the commission’s vote.
• Sunbelt said it was “surprised” by opposition from the Environmental Law Project and the Conservation League and believes the project will help clean up contamination from a dry cleaner that used to be located on the property and reduce and improve the runoff into Pawleys Creek.
• Sunbelt said a Loyola University study on the impact of a national retailer on smaller retailers, which is often cited by the Don’t Box the Neck group, was found to be flawed. Sunbelt also stated that the study was done in Chicago, which has different shoppers and retailers than Pawleys Island.
With a 9.4 percent unemployment rate in Georgetown County, Sunbelt said supporters of the redevelopment want all types of new jobs.
• Sunbelt said its big-box store would be outside Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor Overlay Zone, and “a ‘visibility’ standard is difficult to define and enforce.”
Sunbelt also said it is working to make sure all the buildings in the redevelopment have a Lowcountry look and feel.
“We realize anything would be a great improvement over what is there now, but we want to do more than just replace an old shopping center with a new one,” the release stated.
By Chris Sokoloski
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