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Development: Plan for troubled property calls for a larger store

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The owner of a troubled property once proposed for a Lowe’s home improvement store is seeking permission to build a 57,000 square foot retail building in the first phase of development.

The plan submitted by First South Bank comes just weeks after a citizens group successfully led opposition to a proposal to build a 119,500-square-foot building as part of the redevelopment of Pawleys Island Plaza. Georgetown County Council approved that plan but capped the largest building at 60,000 square feet, the maximum allowed under zoning regulations.

The Don’t Box the Neck group now wants the county to reduce the maximum building size along the Highway 17 corridor on Waccamaw Neck to 45,000 square feet. County Council Member Bob Anderson said he plans to move that process forward, but it needs review by the county Planning Commission and approval from the full council.

“They’re obviously fast-tracking this to make sure it gets approved before the ordinance changes,” said SueAnn Crawford, who chairs Don’t Box the Neck.

The group was formed in 2004 to oppose plans for a 168,000-square-foot Lowe’s on the 18-acre tract at the intersection of Highway 17 and the South Causeway. It was revived last summer when Sunbelt Ventures submitted plans to redevelop Pawleys Island Plaza, a project that Sunbelt partners said was initiated by interest from Wal-Mart Stores.

After the Lowe’s project failed to win approval from County Council, the South Causeway property was sold to Peggy Wheeler-Cribb, and it was zoned for 214,600 square feet of commercial space as a “planned development” zoning district. The county required that each phase of the development be brought back for approval.

First South foreclosed on the property in 2010 and wound up in Circuit Court last fall. A jury found Wheeler-Cribb in default on a $5 million loan. The bank took title to the property for $2,500.

A First South official said the rezoning was initiated on behalf of a potential buyer. The deal should be completed in a few weeks.

“It’s purely tenant driven,” said Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt. “There are a couple that would fit that footprint.”

He is still trying to line up a lead tenant for Pawleys Island Plaza.

“I’m sure we’re talking to the same people,” he said. “That’s the nature of the business.”

First South is well aware of the rezoning process that Sunbelt went through, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. “They were wondering how it would affect them,” he said.

The South Causeway request is for three buildings: 57,000, 14,000 and 6,000 square feet on 6.2 acres bordering the Pawleys Landing neighborhood. The approved uses include a grocery store, retail, restaurant, offices and apartments.

The plan submitted to the county labels the smaller buildings as “retail” and the larger simply “commercial.”

A masonry wall is proposed in addition to a landscaped buffer between the project and the adjacent homes, Johnson said.

“There’s no indication of a tenant,” he said.

The tenant isn’t important to Don’t Box the Neck, Crawford said. The group is concerned about the scale of commercial development and the potential for big-box national retail chains to squeeze out small, locally-owned businesses.

“We’re still trying to pursue the ordinance change,” she said.

Don’t Box the Neck has not yet met to discuss the new project. Since it falls within current zoning, Crawford said she isn’t sure there’s much the group could do.

The group would like the county to adopt a cap of 30,000 square feet in “general commercial” zones along Highway 17 and a 45,000-square-foot cap in “planned developments.”

Anderson favors a single limit of 45,000 square feet.

“Obviously people are building larger grocery stores, but 45,000 should be enough,” he said, adding that none of the existing grocery stores on Waccamaw Neck are larger than 30,000 square feet.

The South Causeway request is within the limits of the current law, but Anderson said he’s still considering the request for 57,000 square feet, which is due to go before the Planning Commission in March.

“Am I willing to go there? The jury’s still out on that,” Anderson said.

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