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Walmart: The public hearing as it happened

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

An estimated 1,300 people showed up at Waccamaw High for a public hearing on a rezoning request from Sunbelt Ventures that would allow Pawleys Island's first big-box retail store. Here is how it went:

4:30 p.m.: The doors are open and the public is filing in for today's hearing on the rezoning proposal for Pawleys Island Plaza.

Opponents of the rezoning have called a press conference for 5 p.m. outside the Waccamaw High Auditorium. The public hearing on the rezoning request for Pawleys Island Plaza is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m.

People who want to speak at the hearing will be asked to sign up at a table in the lobby.

5:00: Three groups say they will consider mounting a legal challenge in Georgetown County approves plans for a big-box store as part of the redevelopment of Pawleys Island. A 5 p.m. press conference by Don't Box the Neck, Coastal Conservation League and S.C. Environmental Law Project is going on outside the Waccamaw High auditorium

Amy Armstrong, head of the law project, said the county ordinance is clear: a building size limit applies even beyond a 500-foot overlay zone if the building is visible from Highway 17.

5:15: It looks like it will be SRO at WHS for the hearing. Three rows of seats are filled with people who have signed up to speak. Planning Commission members and staff are waiting in the wings.

5:20: There is overflow seating in the cafeteria for 500 people. WHS principal David Hammel says there will be no standing or sitting in the aisles.

5:30: The meeting is under way with five of the six commission members. There is one vacant seat and one member is out of town.

5:35: The planning staff is going through its report to the commission. It has recommended approval with a list of conditions.

5:40: Planning director Boyd Johnson is going through the highlights of the report. "You wouldn't be here tonight if you didn't know what the status of the project is," he said.

5:45: Johnson cites the S.C. Supreme Court ruling from 2010 that planned developments need to have a mix of uses. Sunbelt Ventures added eight small lots. "We felt those lots were just too small," he said.

"Residential is just an incidental part of this project," he added.

5:50: The current development already has a big-box approved for 84,300 sq. ft. "They could go out there tomorrow and get the permits and start construction," Johnson said. But Sunbelt wants the main building to 119,500 sq. ft.

5:55: Johnson is going over the landscaping requirements. Staff wants shade trees in the parking lot islands "to soften the appearance." Now he's going to explain how the overlay zone for design standards and building size apply to this project.

6:00: Although the overlay rules apply to developments "visible" from Highway 17, Johnson says "our practice has been to use parcels." The big-box store on the Sunbelt plan is outside the overlay zone.

Johnson reiterates there is no tenant for the big-box store, and admits he used the "W" word.

6:05: The big-box proposed would be 440 ft. wide, Johnson said. That is smaller than the Piggly Wiggly complex in Murrells Inlet at 568. The Walmart in Georgetown is 600 ft.

Johnson is now talking about the traffic study Sunbelt provided.

6:10: The development will include a traffic light at Highway 17 and Petigru. "That will probably help the liquor store, too," Johnson said. He's now addressing concerns about impact of a big-box store on community. And the audience groans when he includes Dollar General as an example of how architectural standards have helped preserve the character of the area.

6:15: Johnson is making the staff recommendation. Redevelopment "did play a big factor in our recommendation," he said.

6:20: Going through a list of conditions for approval, Johnson says the project might be able to provide some affordable housing. After he wraps ups, commission members will be able to ask questions. Commission member Glenda Shoulette has a handful of notes and is writing more.

6:25: As commission starts to ask questions, mic problems prompts some calls from the audience. Chairman Brian Henry assures the audience he will make sure everything is heard.

6:30: Shoulette points out that the 84,000 sq. ft. approved in 2008 was because it was a "rehab," not new construction. She also asks for bike path connections to the project.

6:35: The developer is ready to start his presentation. Gray Taylor, attorney for Sunbelt Ventures, is the speaker. He will focus on benefits for Georgetown County. Mike Wooten, the engineer, will talk about the environmental benefits of the project. "I really don't want to be redundant."

6:40: Taylor says big-box building with "substantially comply" with design code. But it can't have a peaked roof. As for bike paths, that would be fine. And economically, the project "will have very real long-term benefits," he says.

6:45: Wooten says the project will improve stormwater that ends up in Pawleys Creek. It will also clean up a chemical spill from an old dry cleaners. Brian Henry asks if that work would be done even if there isn't a big-box store. Wooten says it will have to be done.

6:50: Henry asks Taylor if the big-box store will be visible from Highway 17. "Technically? Possibly," he said.

There are 90 people signed up to speak at the hearing. Henry is laying out the ground rules. Each will get 3 minutes.

6:55: Vida Miller says "we will not be gaining a big-box store, we will be losing a community."

7:00: Bill Murray says he hoped to "get up to that gracefully," but time ran out. So he said he wanted the commission to be carefull of approving larger building.

7:05: Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis says the project will be the "tip of the iceberg" for mass-market retailers.

7:10: "This would destroy our town for the profits of one big corporation," says Sharon Huber, who moved from Horry County to escape congestion.

7:15: Lee Brockington asks the commission to "set the bar high in the future use of this property."

7:20: Petitions with 3,182 signatures opposed to the project are presented to the commission by SueAnn Crawford, who chairs Don't Box the Neck."

7:25: "I am for the development," says Bunny Rodriques, to a smattering of applause. "We do need those jobs here."

7:30: Bill Richards tells the commission he saw the impact of Walmart on small businesses in a town in Virginia. Penny Christensen says Walmart is "guilty of contributing to inhumanity" as she gives a tearful account of the recent fire in Pakistan that killed almost 300 garment workers."

7:35: After over two hours, fanny fatigue is setting in and people are starting to leave. Brian Henry asks people to stop bashing Wal-Mart, saying that has been explained repeatedly.

7:40: "I don't think anything can change what Pawleys Island is, only the people," says Alice Young, who supports the project because it will bring jobs and affordable shopping.

7:45: "Let's stop the big-box stores where they are now," said Penny Miller, "and try to preserve the character of Waccamaw Neck."

7:50: With about 70 more speakers still to be heard from, the crowd has thinned considerably in the WHS auditorium. Brian Henry encourages people to be brief and stay on point.

7:55: Scott Gibson, headmaster of Lowcountry Prep, says the school is concerned about crime and traffic the development may bring.

8:00: Attorney Amy Armstrong challenges the interpretation of the ordinance by staff to allow the big-box. "If it's going to be visible from Highway 17 it has to comply" with the size limit.

8:05: Jennifer and Chris Brown, owners of Pawleys Island Supplies, say they considered the zoning rules when they bought the business "knowing our elected officials would back us up."

8:10: "Our organization views big boxes as an invasive species," says Jeff McClary, co-founder of the sea turtle group SCUTE.

8:15: Karen Yaniga tells the commission that there are 31 empty storefronts in Andrews and 14 in Georgetown due to the Walmart store in Georgetown. "Do not destroy another business district."

8:20: Plenty of empty seats and lots of speakers left, if you missed the first three hours of the hearing.

8:25: Robert Polock keeps things lively while noting that the commission has a tough job planning for an unknown tenant: "If it turns out to be Pet Smart and not Walmart, we will have been barking upt the wrong tree."

8:30: Goffinet McLaren says a big-box store will contribute to plastic pollution. Local shops are supporting her anti-plastic-bag campaign.

8:35: Peter Eisenberg wonders if there is a compromise.

8:40: Incorporation ought to be the response if the big-box plan is approved, says Ned MacWilliams. "I think we should incorporate and make Wal-Mart wish they'd never heard of Pawleys Island."

8:45: Tom Stickler says the traffic analysis was based on a lower density use than what may end up on the property. "Stantec greatly underestimated the number of trips."

8:50: Andrew Rodrigues tells the commission "they already boxed the neck" with gated communities. Other people need the jobs a big-box store will bring. Charles Biddix says he decided to open an Ace Hardware after the Lowe's big-box store was denied in 2005.

8:55: Speakers continue to focus on economic impacts of big-box stores. One cites his daughter's history book about the impact of imports in the Colonial Era.

9:00: Michael Grant, a business owner, says economy has affected everyone, white and black. And a big-box store will affect those who work at local businesses. "They're going to be deeply disappointed."

9:05: Gena Simmons and her husband don't want the project to connect on Richardson Drive, where they bought their first home a year ago. They worry about their children and the traffic.

9:10: Peg Howell asks the commission to improve the process so that there is more time for the community to get involved before plans like this come up for approval. "We need to come up with a plan that's a value for the community."

9:15: Attorney Bob Moran is the last speaker. He is speaking to the applicable law and noting that the overlay zone size limit applies because the project is "visible" from Highway 17. Developers will have the time to rebut what they've heard. In theory, 5 minutes.

9:20: Gray Taylor replies that meeting would have been half as long if Sunbelt had been able to name a tenant.

9:25: Commission begins discussion. Glenda Shoulette says again that the current 84,000 sq. ft. building was only approved as rehab, not as a rebuild.

9:30: Shoulette cites "visible" standard and says buildings "shall comply" with regulations.

9:35: Shoutlette says 60,000 sq. ft. is maximum building size allowed. She goes on to say there will be an impact on small business from a big-box retailer and cites other national chains that are opperating now within the boundaries of the overlay zone rules.

9:40: Commission member Norma Grant says people need to think about both sides of the issue. Walmart isn't the only stop for her shopping. People can stick with small shops if they want. "There are some people in the community that love Walmart."

9:45: Commission member Marvin Neal says "there is a part of me that says there is enough for everybody."

9:50: Chairman Brian Henry agrees that commission has to represent all the county, but says "you can't rewind a big-box store on Waccamaw Neck."

9:55: Henry says he is concerned about voting on the rezoning tonight because of unanswered questions. He will not vote for it and asks the County Council members who represent Waccamaw Neck not to vote for it.

10:00: Shoulette tells Dusty Wiederhold of Sunbelt that he spoke of other options at a meeting this week. "We are wide open for discussion," he says. Shoulette moves to deny.

10:05: The vote: 3-2 against the motion to deny.

10:10: Marvin Neal moves to approve with conditions recommended by the staff. But he says it should comply with the overlay zone. Henry says he needs to clarify because of confusion over requirements of the zone.

10:15: Motion passes 4-1 to approve the development but without the exemption to the size requirement to the overlay zone. That means no building larger than 60,000 sq ft..

10:20: The room is cleared, except for Cliff Smith of Murrells Inlet who is asking for a reversion of a lot at Live Oak Village for commercial use. It takes a minute to pass after a wait of nearly five hours.

10:25: Meeting adjourned.

Read other articles about the project: Pawleys Island and Walmart

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