Residents ask county to hit pause on growth
The two newest members of Georgetown County Council are reluctant to embrace a call for a moratorium on new multi-family development on Waccamaw Neck, but say they are willing to help any property owners who want to change their land’s zoning to restrict future development.
“If they want to change it and decrease density, and that’s their property, they’re welcome to come and change it,” Council Member Stella Mercado said. “We would have no issue with that.”
She has already met with property owners in the Parkersville area, where the county’s approval of four multi-family projects is the subject of pending lawsuits. Council Member Clint Elliott said he is doing the same in a section of Murrells Inlet.
“I’m trying to meet with the neighbors and get them to voluntarily rezone their lots from R-10 to R-1,” Elliott said. That would change the minimum lot size from 10,000 square feet to an acre.
Elliott, who was elected last year in Council District 1, and Mercado, who was elected in District 6, spoke this week to the county GOP Club. The conversation quickly turned to land use.
Anne Zavacky, who lives across the street from property proposed for a townhouse development, told Mercado “you went against your constituents” when she voted with the council majority to approve site plan review for the project.
Zavacky asked that Mercado support a moratorium on multi-family development until the county completes an update of its comprehensive plan and a stormwater management plan for the Waccamaw Neck.
The council approved the townhouse project because, like two others that are facing a legal challenge, the property is zoned “general residential,” which allows for multi-family development. Opponents argued at public hearings and in court that the sites are shown as medium density on the future land-use maps that are part of the comprehensive plan, so the townhouse projects that exceed that density should not be allowed.
“There’s a difference between the zoning and what the future land-use map says,” Mercado said. “It’s frustrating that they conflict.”
She and Elliott said they are working to get the two documents to align, but until that happens, Elliott said, “the zoning is the law. The comp plan is the guide.”
One woman questioned whether Elliott wanted to see Pawleys Island end up looking like Murrells Inlet.
“I live in Murrells Inlet,” Elliott replied. “What we’re guided by is the zoning.”
“You should be guided by the people,” the woman said.
Rezoning property without the owner’s consent and denying approval for development that is allowed under the current zoning would invite lawsuits, Elliott said.
“You could stop all of this by passing a moratorium on any multi-family, and that would include duplexes,” said Marla Hamby, a member of the Planning Commission. “Buy yourself some time.”
That would allow the county time to update the land-use element of the comprehensive plan, which includes the maps, she said.
“Y’all are the most hated people in the world right now,” Hamby added.
“I’ll let my kids know that,” Mercado said.
Elliott agreed there are people who are unhappy with the council, including those who live in the rural area where a 200 megawatt solar farm was approved for 2,061 acres of forest land.
“We did it because it was a good thing for the county. All our decisions are based on law and the benefit of the county. Not everybody’s going to like it.”
If the county’s goal is to avoid lawsuits, it isn’t having much success, Bill Cooper said.
“I see the worst of Horry County coming down the Neck parcel by parcel,” he said. “We really need to get a plan in place that preserves what really defines the Neck from Horry County.”
Mercado agreed, adding that she doesn’t want more high density development, self-storage facilities or gas stations. But when those projects are proposed on property where they are allowed by the zoning ordinance, they don’t require the council’s approval.
“How are you two going to fast-track changing zoning to the comprehensive plan, even if it’s the one done years ago,” said Everett Allen. “A moratorium would be one of the best things you could do.”
“We have to be careful when we do stuff like that with unintended consequences,” Elliott said.
A moratorium could affect economic development projects that are underway that will bring high-paying jobs to the county, he said.
Those projects could help offset the imbalance between property tax revenue generated on the Waccamaw Neck, which has 80 percent of the taxable value, and the rest of the county, Mercado said.
“We’ve got to offset this,” she said. “The three districts can’t continue to pay for the other four.”
And she added that she believes there is support in the four council districts west of the Waccamaw River for development that provides jobs and workforce housing, which are also goals in the county’s current comprehensive plan.
Linda Caswell questioned the council members about the county’s proposal to restore site-plan review for multi-family projects to the planning staff. Those now come before the Planning Commission, which makes a recommendation to County Council on whether the plans comply with the zoning ordinance and development regulations.
“Neither one of them should really be looking at that,” Elliott said.
The process, implemented in 2011, was intended to make sure people had notice of new development, but has become contentious, Mercado said.
Caswell seemed satisfied.
“It sounds like you’re really trying to get things changed,” she said.