County faces new suit over duplex plan’s approval
A fourth lawsuit in 14 months – and the second this year – seeks to overturn Georgetown County’s approval of a 12-unit duplex development at Pawleys Island even as the county moves forward with a change in the rules that led to that approval.
The suit filed last week in Circuit Court claims the county approval process violated state law by delegating the final decision to the County Council. The duplexes are planned for 2 acres on Petigru Drive that are zoned “general residential,” but which the county’s future land-use maps designate as “medium density.” The net density of the duplexes (once land wetlands and roads are removed) is 7.7 units an acre. Georgetown County considers more than five units an acre to be “high density.”
The Planning Commission recommended the county deny “site plan approval” for the duplexes because the project exceeds the medium density limit. County Council voted to approve the project.
The suit filed by Keep It Green Advocacy on behalf of neighboring property owners and three citizens groups, says state law doesn’t allow County Council to give site plan approval. The law allows the Planning Commission to delegate plan review to “designated staff.” Georgetown County did that until 2008, when it required that plans for multi-family projects with more than 10 units or more to be reviewed by the commission and the council. The goal was to make sure the public knew about projects before construction began.
A proposal up for review by the Planning Commission tonight would return the plan review to staff, but retain the public notice requirement. It would require that notices be mailed to property owners within 600 feet of a site proposed for more than 10 multi-family units.
“It needs to be amended to take County Council out of the picture,” said Cindy Person, chief counsel for Keep It Green Advocacy, but she added that “I think it is a step backward as far as transparency is concerned.”
The current process includes a public hearing before the Planning Commission. Because the site plan review is limited to compliance with the county regulations, unlike a zoning change, people who object to a project don’t understand why it gets approved.
“I wouldn’t have a problem if the ordinances were in compliance with the comp plan,” Person said. “An amendment like this would take care of 95 percent of the problems.”
In the case of the Petigru duplexes, “County Council did not have the authority to hear, review or approve this land development application, or to review, modify or reverse the decision of Planning Commission,” according to the lawsuit.
But even if a court decides that the council had that ability, the suit said the decision should be overturned because the high density development doesn’t comply with the medium density designation in the future land-use maps. Like the three other suits brought by Keep It Green Advocacy, it asks the court to rule that the county must bring its zoning ordinance into compliance with its comprehensive plan, which includes the future land-use maps.
“There are many existing zoning districts on parcels of land in the Waccamaw Neck that are in direct conflict with the Comprehensive Plan as they relate to residential density,” according to the suit. They should have been brought into compliance with the adoption of a new plan. “Instead, conflicting zoning ordinances have been permitted to exist, in some cases for many decades, despite their inconsistency with the Comprehensive Plan and Maps.”
The county maintains that it is the zoning that controls what is approved.
The lawsuit cites the preamble to the comprehensive plan, first adopted in 1997, which states “once the Plan is adopted, the planning staff will immediately commence work on changes to the Zoning Ordinance.”
County officials have cited another section of that document that notes “The Comprehensive Plan is not a law or ordinance.”
The first suit filed by Keep It Green Advocacy is due for a hearing next week. Brought in January 2022, it challenged the rezoning for 14.8 acres off Highway 17 south of Pawleys Island from “residential half-acre” to “residential 10,000 square feet.”
The suit claims that the zoning change violated the goals of the county’s comprehensive plan to restrict residential development on the Waccamaw Neck by potentially allowing twice the number of dwellings to be developed on the property.
Benjamin Goff, the property owner, sought to be dismissed as a defendant. When a judge denied that motion, Goff appealed to the Court of Appeals. It was not heard.
Goff, who is representing himself, is now seeking summary judgment in his favor.