Day-long event takes some heat out of land-use issues
The only time voices were raised during a constituent drop in by County Council Member Stella Mercado was when people needed to talk over the sound of dribbling basketballs or volleying pickleballs.
“No one raised their voice. Everyone was super-great,” Mercado said.
About 40 people showed up at the break room at the Waccamaw Regional Recreation Center in Parkersville during the eight hours Mercado was there. She had taped land use and zoning maps to the wall along with a color-coded chart showing the various requirements for each zoning district. On the counters, there were maps with all the undeveloped residential property in Council District 6 larger than an acre outlined in red.
She expected most of the questions would be about land use. “There’s a lot of misinformation. That’s why I’m doing this,” she said.
Since taking office in January, Mercado has been criticized for votes on land-use approvals, including one in February that was challenged in court by neighbors and citizens groups. It is one of four suits filed against the county in the last year over land use issues.
The council is due to vote next week on a measure that would return site plan review for multi-family developments containing more than five units to planning staff. Those projects now require a public hearing from the Planning Commission and approval by County Council.
The public perception is that the county is doing away with public input on development, “even the Planning Commission” itself, Mercado said. “That’s not even remotely part of the conversation.”
To explain the change, she suggested people imagine that they had a lot on which they wanted to build a house. The county staff would review it for compliance with zoning regulations and building codes. If it met the regulations, it would be approved.
Critics say the change in the site plan review process will reduce transparency. Mercado said the neighboring property owners will still get notice of proposed multi-family development and be able to comment to the planning staff.
“I think some people got it,” Mercado said. “Some people didn’t want to get it.”
Mercado was a co-founder of the tech company Mercom, which she later sold. She said her business experience with making presentations made the drop-in format comfortable.
“I’m not comfortable in an environment where I’m being attacked,” she said.
But she thought the format was also more comfortable for constituents who might be intimidated by addressing County Council at its meetings.
“They want to be heard, and they should be heard,” Mercado said. “Hopefully, this is a friendly atmosphere where people can feel comfortable.”
Beyond land use, Mercado got requests for an automatic door for handicapped access to the rec center, which also serves as a senior center. She was also asked to get a sign for the senior center.
One person wanted a copy of the hurricane evacuation plan for the county. Another wanted to see the current plans for a bike route along Petigru Drive and Waverly Road.
There were complaints about potholes on Sherman Drive.
Mercado was asked to look into funding for Midway Fire and Rescue and to find out if the county could limit driveways at beach houses to pervious materials to reduce stormwater runoff.
And she heard from several people who were concerned about the lack of affordable housing in her district and the county as a whole.
A couple of people stopped between rounds of pickleball. She said she picked the rec center over the Waccamaw Library, which is also in her district, because people could bring small children without worrying about them being quiet.
“I want to be able to reach everybody,” Mercado said.
She plans to make drop ins a quarterly event, coupled with a newsletter to constituents recapping the issues over the three months. That would provide the basis for discussion or questions.
“I want to be transparent and share as much as I can,” Mercado said.