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Land use: Forum on growth finds the time is right

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

An effort to promote sustainable development in Georgetown County will benefit from a statutory review of the land use plan and County Council’s plans to resume its long-range planning process. “Some people say it’s too late,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. “I don’t agree with that.”

He isn’t alone. A forum on growth on the Waccamaw Neck last week drew about 75 people to hear Johnson explain past trends and hear about strategies for the future from Michelle LaRocco of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Estuarine Research Reserve and Pam Martin, a professor at Coastal Carolina University. LaRocco and Martin organized the Georgetown County Sustainability Coalition that obtained a designation for the county as a U.N. Regional Centre of Expertise in sustainable development.

John Sands, a Murrells Inlet resident who worked on land conservation with the Donnelley Foundation, organized the forum after years of listening to Waccamaw Neck residents complain about growth. “That’s reactive thinking,” he said. “There’s a lot of brainpower being thrown at the question of how to maintain the quality of life in a community.” His goal was to start that discussion here, figuring out how people envision the community in another decade and what tools are needed to make that happen.

The timing is right, Johnson said. Under state law the county has to update its comprehensive plan every 10 years. Work has already started to update the 2007 plan. A key component is the land use plan, which establishes the basis for zoning. “The zoning ordinance, the way it’s written today, promotes what we call sprawl,” Johnson said.

One alternative would be to allow higher density on some parcels to cluster development and preserve green space on other parcels. That strategy could help water quality, LaRocco said. The Winyah Bay reserve has created a handbook on low-impact development to encourage local government and developers to reduce stormwater runoff. “Low-impact development is not about no development, it’s about doing it a little differently,” she said.

The concept also involves clustering development. The benefit to developers is less infrastructure and higher returns on their investment, LaRocco said. That’s something the county could implement through the zoning ordinance, possibly by creating a low-impact development district, Johnson said. It would help, he added, if the benefits to developers could be quantified.

Sandra Bundy, a Murrells Inlet resident, pointed out that a 2013 study put the value of the saltmarsh at $720 million, but that a watershed plan to protect that resource was not included in the county’s comprehensive plan.

“I guess that’s a disconnect,” Johnson said.

“Exactly,” Bundy said. “We certainly need to protect it.”

Johnson said that could be done by creating an overlay zone, similar to the one that sets design standards for commercial buildings along Highway 17. He said he would also like to see improvements in the county tree ordinance and landscaping requirements for commercial development. The former “has got some holes in it” and the latter “is a little on the skimpy side,” Johnson said.

The county also needs to do more to promote bike paths and sidewalks, even along Highway 17, Johnson said. “Can you really see Highway 17 being a neighborhood-friendly street? Yes, I can,” he said. That won’t mean you can sit at a sidewalk café drinking coffee, but it could mean better landscaping and a bike path. And even though much of the highway frontage is developed, in-fill projects and redevelopment will provide opportunities in the future, he said.

Despite the gaps, there are still some important protections in the zoning ordinance, residents said. “Sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit,” said Karen Yaniga. She traveled the East Coast before deciding to move to the Pawleys Island area 20 years ago. The tree ordinance and the 35-foot limit on building height made the difference.

“People are willing to pay a higher price for something they believe in,” Yaniga said. “It doesn’t take ordinances across the county to get developers to do the right thing.”

Sustainable development is what takes place where people, profits and planets intersect, Martin said. It isn’t a choice between trees and jobs. “We are recognized worldwide for the natural resources we have,” she said. “It’s also about creating a living wage and an educated workforce.”

Because Georgetown County hasn’t developed at the same rate as Horry, Charleston or Berkeley counties, there is still time for it to make decisions that will affect quality of life in the future. The U.N. Regional Centre of Excellence designation is intended to promote on-going discussions.

“No one’s interested in having some bureaucrat in New York City tell them how to develop the pervious and impervious surfaces,” Martin said. But communities can learn from one another. “I was flabbergasted when the U.N. said they couldn’t wait to learn from Georgetown County.”

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