An estimated 1,400 people showed up at last week’s public hearing on plans for a big box store at an existing Pawleys Island shopping center. Days after a vote was taken, members of the Georgetown County Planning Commission and Sunbelt Ventures developers aren’t sure what was decided.
What is the future of Pawleys Plaza?
Neither the county nor the developer knows.
After four-and-a-half hours of discussion on Thursday night, the Georgetown County Planning Commission finally voted on a rezoning request for the plaza.
But what commissioners actually voted for left many people inside Waccamaw High School’s auditorium scratching their heads.
Sunbelt Ventures in Mount Pleasant wants to expand and redevelop the plaza, and build a 119,500-sqaure-foot store for a national retailer.
Georgetown County Planning Department recommended the rezoning be approved, with some conditions.
Thursday’s first vote was on a motion by Glenda Shoulette to not accept the Planning Department staff recommendation.
Shoulette and Chairman Brian Henry, who both represent Waccamaw Neck, voted yes. The other three commissioners present – Marvin Neal, Norma Grant and Glen Stafford – voted no.
After that vote, a few minutes passed as the commissioners, and the Planning staff sitting at a nearby table, tried to figure out what to do next.
Neal then made a motion to approve the project without any exceptions to the overlay zone, “as described by staff and written in the ordinance.”
Henry then tried to get Neal to clarify exactly what he meant. Several attempts by Henry to repeat the motion for Neal prompted Georgetown County Attorney Wesley Bryant to yell “let him say it” from the back of the auditorium.
Neal then repeated his motion, which passed 4-1, with Stafford voting no.
It is unclear whether that means approval of the staff recommendation for a 119,500-square-foot store, or approval of the plan with a store no larger than 60,000 square feet, which is what’s allowed in the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor Overlay Zone, or approval of the plan with 83,400 square feet of retail space, which is what was approved in 2008 but never built.
Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt, said he has been trying to get clarification from Johnson on the vote.
“We’re trying to decide what to do and we’ll make some decisions pretty quickly,” Wiederhold said. That decision could come before the plan first goes before County Council in two weeks.
An estimated 1,400 people packed the new auditorium and cafeteria at Waccamaw High for Thursday’s meeting.
Although 90 people originally signed up to speak at the meeting, only 51 spoke. Forty-five spoke against a big box store, five were in favor, and one was non-committal.
Many opponents were wearing “Don’t Box the Neck” T-shirts, or stickers.
Scott Gibson, the head of Lowcountry Prep School, which is near the plaza, is concerned about a rise in crime and traffic that will come with redevelopment.
Jeff McClary, co-founder of South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, called big box stores an “invasive species” that will endanger the nearby Pawleys Creek.
“There is no place for a big box in this fragile environmental area,” McClary said. “The health of the creek will never recover.”
Goffinet McLaren, who has successfully gotten many shops on Waccamaw Neck to stop using plastic bags, said a big box store will pump more than 20,000 plastic bags a day into the community.
Many people spoke out against Walmart, although Sunbelt again said that they have no commitment from anybody.
“I respect their opinions,” Wiederhold said. “It’s an indication that people care about what’s going on in the county and that’s good.”
After the public had its say, the commissioners talked about the plan. By that time, nearly four hours into the meeting, most of the more than 600 people in the auditorium had left.
Shoulette wanted sidewalks and a connection to the bike path when it’s completed along Waverly Road added to the plan.
Gray Taylor, a lawyer for Sunbelt, said they would be willing to address that.
Earlier in the meeting, Taylor had verbally sparred with Henry about whether the big box store would be visible from Highway 17, which would subject it to the overlay rules.
Shoulette scoffed at Sunbelt’s assertion that the store “technically” would be visible from the highway.
“Our ordinance is very clear,” Shoulette said.
Shoulette called the project “beautiful” and said the commission would work with Sunbelt on buildings between 45,000 and 60,000 square feet.
Henry began by saying “I’m not sure where to start,” and then read prepared remarks explaining why he was opposed to the project.
“You can’t rewind a big box store on the Waccamaw Neck,” he said. “Something nice is going to go there. Why does it have to be a big box?”
He believes the ordinance is clear.
“Why should we put up with a big box store when our law specifically says we don’t want one?”
Neal talked about growing up in Plantersville and vacationing on Pawleys Island as a child.
He said the redevelopment would be an improvement over what’s there now.
“Everybody’s not going to be happy,” Neal said. “Some things have to change for the good of the people.”
Commissioners made it clear that they do not accept the study that Sunbelt submitted which found the development would have very little impact on traffic.
They requested County Council get a third party traffic study paid for by the developer and have it reviewed by the Waccamaw Neck Council of Governments.
The plan now goes to County Council, which will give it first reading by title only on Oct. 9. A discussion and second vote will take place on Oct. 23, with a final vote on Nov. 13.
Johnson said Sunbelt can wait for Council to vote, or defer or withdraw the plan. A deferment or withdrawal has to be approved by Council.
Council also has the option of sending the plan back to the Planning Commission.
By Chris Sokoloski
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