Third suit in a year challenges county zoning decision
A lawsuit filed by neighbors and citizens groups seeks to overturn Georgetown County Council’s decision to change the zoning on an undeveloped tech park at Pawleys Island to allow 90 townhouses. The suit was filed last week by Keep It Green Advocacy, a year and a day after it filed its first lawsuit challenging a zoning decision. It now has three zoning suits pending in Circuit Court.
County Council approved the amendment to the tech park “planned development” zoning in November over the objections of area residents. The nonprofit Alliance for Economic Development for Georgetown County bought the property in 2016 using a $950,000 loan from Santee Cooper. The county, which made the payments on the loan, planned to create a tech park in conjunction with the construction of a headquarters for Mercom, a technology company that also owned property in the development. After Mercom ran into financial trouble, the alliance, which was created by the county in the 1970s to support economic development, decided to sell its property.
An offer of $1.4 million for the county’s 14.4 acres was made in 2020, but a developer’s plans for 182 apartments was withdrawn in the face of public opposition.
In April, the alliance received another offer from a buyer that it has not disclosed for a price that has also been kept secret. Council Chairman Louis Morant and Council Member Raymond Newton serve on the alliance board. Morant voted for the sale. Newton was absent, according to meeting minutes provided under an open records request.
The lawsuit argues that Morant and Newton should have recused themselves from voting on the zoning amendment because their role on the alliance board created a conflict of interest. It says Council Member Steve Goggans should have done likewise because his architectural firm designed plans for a business park and the tech park on the property up for rezoning.
Before the council’s final vote on the zoning change, the county attorney, Jay Watson, said Newton and Morant didn’t have a conflict because they would not receive any benefit from the property sale beyond the general economic benefit to the county.
Cindy Person, chief counsel for Keep It Green Advocacy, filed the suit on behalf of the owners of five adjacent lots along with Keep It Green, Preserve Murrells Inlet and the Parkersville Planning and Development Alliance. It claims the amendment was flawed because the planned development zoning should have been revoked when construction failed to start within two years as required by the county ordinance. It asks the court to declare that the county is required to revert all undeveloped planned developments to a zoning that complies with its comprehensive plan.
Even if the tech park zoning was valid, the suit claims that the county violated state law by allowing high-density residential development on property that the comprehensive plan designates as commercial and in an area where neighboring residential lots are designated for medium density.
The zoning amendment “sets a precedent for (a) ignoring the Comprehensive Plan in making future land use decisions, and (b) allowing high density residential re-zoning on many acres of other land in the Waccamaw Neck that is not zoned for either residential use or high density,” according to the suit.
And because the land-use element of the comprehensive plan says density increases should only be allowed if open space is provided, the suit argues that any approvals that raise density must include a “corresponding” decrease.
“The Alliance requested to increase residential density on a parcel that allowed no residential density without a corresponding density decrease or elimination. Accordingly, the Alliance request does not fall within the exception to the density restriction,” the suit states.
The council’s approval included a condition that 27 of the 90 townhouses will be rented at “below market rates.”
The suit notes that the deal doesn’t meet the goal of providing affordable housing that is included in the comprehensive plan.
Holly Richardson, the county planning director, said last week that county staff is due to meet with the attorney for the buyer to draft an agreement on the below-market rentals.
The first suit filed by Keep It Green Advocacy challenged a rezoning of property off Highway 17 south of Pawleys Island from “residential half-acre” to allow quarter-acre lots. Plaintiff said that would increase density in violation of the goals of the comprehensive plan.
The property owner, Benjamin Goff, sought to be dismissed as a defendant in that case. His motion was denied in Circuit Court. Goff appealed. This week, the state Court of Appeals dismissed Goff’s appeal saying “the order on appeal is not immediately appealable.”
Goff, who is representing himself, filed a motion for summary judgment. The county filed a motion to dismiss the suit last April.
The county is also asking the court to dismiss a suit brought by Keep It Green Advocacy challenging the approval of two townhouse projects in Parkersville. Its suit in that case claims the county should have changed the “general residential” zoning on the two sites to comply with the medium density designation in the comprehensive plan.
“Plaintiff’s Complaint incorrectly and erroneously cites the laws of both the State of South Carolina and Georgetown County as it relates to the underlying allegations,” according to court filings. “Any requested relief is impossible, impractical as a matter of law, and outside of the laws of the State.”