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Pawleys Island: Hurricane adds twist to dispute over walkway width
By Charles Swenson
A ruling by the state Court of Appeals may not be the last word in a dispute over a walkway to the beach on Pawleys Island that has dragged on for almost eight years. The town of Pawleys Island is due to review the ordinance at the heart of the case that has included two hearings by the Board of Zoning Appeals, two hearings in Circuit Court and two failed attempts at mediation.
The Court of Appeals weighed in earlier this month with a ruling that affirms the lower court’s decision that the width of the walkway must be reduced from 6 feet to 4 feet. But Robert and Pamela Wilkes, owners of the walkway and beach house on Atlantic Avenue, aren’t giving up. Last week, they asked the Appeals Court to reconsider.
But while the courts were reviewing the case, Hurricane Matthew damaged walkways along the entire island. Not all of those replacements hewed to the 4-foot width restriction. “Bottom line, they did it without a permit,” Town Administrator Ryan Fabbri said. “By last count there were 12 with 6-foot walkways.”
The Wilkeses said they relied on town documents that showed walkways were allowed up to 6 feet in width, even though the town development ordinance said the limit was 4 feet. They started renovations on the house in 2008. In the process, the steps were condemned. Their builder applied, for but didn’t obtain, a permit for steps and the walkway in June 2009. The work was nearly completed when a stop-work order was issued the next month because the walkway was too wide.
The Wilkeses said their builder relied on a tutorial on the town’s website that referred to the 6-foot width. The town said that was an example referring to the state’s limit on walkways, which is more generous. It amended the document in 2009.
The town Board of Zoning Appeals denied the Wilkeses’ request for a variance. The couple appealed to the Circuit Court.
Judge Larry Hyman ordered the board to hold a new hearing and ordered both sides to participate in mediation. The appeals board denied the second variance request. The Wilkeses filed a new appeal with the court, and in December 2014 Hyman ordered the walkway be reduced to 4 feet. He said the hardship was “preventable and self induced” by the failure to get a permit before starting work.
The Wilkeses asked Hyman to amend his ruling. He declined.
In a single page ruling, a panel of three Appeals Court judges affirmed Hyman’s decision. They cited precedents that limit the scope of appeals to whether the Board of Zoning Appeals followed the law and define the law as a statute’s “plain and unambiguous” language.
But the Wilkeses’ attorney, Brandon Reeser of Charleston, argues that neither the town nor the courts have addressed the central issue of whether the online tutorial and an accompanying checklist were part of the development ordinance. “It is unclear from the opinion which statute the court considers to be ‘plain and unambiguous,’” he wrote in a motion for reconsideration.
If the Appeals Court ruling stands, at least a dozen other property owners will find themselves in the same position as the Wilkeses. “We can go to these 12 people and tell them to rip it out,” Fabbri said. “In my opinion, it’s not the way to go.”
He asked the Planning Commission to review the ordinance. “I’ve not been presented with an argument why it’s 4 feet,” Fabbri said. “Maybe it looks better, but I would disagree with that.”
The current ordinance allows a 4-foot walkway with a provision for benches on the portion that is outside of the state’s beachfront jurisdiction as long as the total width isn’t over 6 feet. The Wilkeses proposed converting a portion of their walkway’s width into seating.
“I believe we have other things to focus on than the width of a walkway,” Fabbri said. That’s partly the reason the new nonconforming walkways were built. There was too much construction and too few people to monitor it.
The town’s permits are handled by Georgetown County under contract, but the building department was also swamped with hurricane-related projects. The focus for rebuilding has been on compliance with federal flood regulations, Fabbri said.
He would prefer that the town follow the same 6-foot standard for walkways as the state and county. But he added, “it’s not my decision.”
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