Vote on apartments deferred as opposition mounts
A request to rezone property once intended for a technology park to allow 182 apartments was deferred this week to allow the developer to “consider some other information,” according to their attorney.
Opponents of the project called on Georgetown County Council to deny the request outright. They said they are concerned that the council will revert to virtual meetings due to a rise in coronavirus cases and that the public won’t be able to provide meaningful comment.
“That situation would be wholly beneficial to the developer,” said Cindy Person, a leader of the citizens group Keep It Green.
Graycliff Capital Partners wants to buy the 14.5 acres on Petigru Drive from the Georgetown County Economic Development Alliance, a nonprofit controlled by the county. The property was bought in 2016 with a $950,000 loan from Santee Cooper. Mercom, a tech firm that owns adjacent property, planned to develop the park in partnership with the county, but ran into financial problems.
Dan Stacy, an attorney who represents Graycliff, said this week’s deferral was only a pause in the process and that they plan to move forward. The Planning Commission also deferred a decision on the plan last year to get more information about traffic and stormwater impacts.
In a procedural move, the council moved the rezoning, scheduled for the second of three required readings, to the top of its agenda and unanimously approved the deferral before taking public comment. The change caught opponents by surprise.
Council Member Louis Morant, who was elected chairman at the start of the meeting, said the deferral was not unusual, and likened it to a continuance in a court proceeding.
Council Member John Thomas, who opposes the rezoning and who is the former chairman, said the move on the agenda was not intended to circumvent comment. Council routinely deals with deferrals at the start of meetings so people don’t have to wait through other agenda items to learn its fate, he noted.
Person was among 13 people who spoke out against the zoning change. She told the county that more than 900 area residents have signed a petition opposing the apartment project. It is also opposed by the Pawleys Island Civic Club, a local community group, and the pastors of two area churches.
One of those pastors, the Rev. Johnny Ford, challenged the argument that the apartments will provide affordable housing during a Planning Commission hearing in November. He said the county should be promoting home ownership instead.
This week, council was read a letter from his wife, School Board Member Lynne Ford, that reinforced that idea. “Our goal, along with other community and business leaders, is to create a legacy so that this community can be a true community,” she wrote. “Petigru Drive used to be filled with hard-working families.”
With growth, it has become a “thruway,” she said.
Ford, who was at a school board meeting, wrote the council that it needed to address “the elephant in the room,” that the once predominantly African-American neighborhood is being squeezed out.
“Decisions made that benefit the majority of residents are often to the detriment of the minority. And that is a major reason that I do not want this Petigru project,” Ford said. “It would not serve the African-American community at all.”
Person told the council that Graycliff offered money and a building on the grounds of the apartment complex to the civic club in exchange for support.
“If they respected the community, they would withdraw their plans,” Person said. “If it weren’t for COVID, the community would be here in droves.”
Kevin Barry, a Heritage Plantation resident, told the council it should wait until the county’s stormwater master plan for the Waccamaw Neck is complete before it allows any development on the site.
He also questioned whether Council Member Steve Goggans was lobbying the community to support the rezoning.
Goggans said afterward that he has still not decided how he will vote on the rezoning.
“I’ve talked with the leader of the civic club and met with a group of ministers over there. I want to know what the community thinks and what they want,” he said. “If that’s lobbying, then I’m guilty.”
Some council members have asked to hold virtual meetings due to the recent rise in coronavirus cases, Thomas said.
If that happens, Person urged the council to further delay a vote on the rezoning until the public can attend an in-person meeting.
But Thomas believes there is enough support on council to deny the rezoning. Even if it has to vote in a virtual meeting, “why drag it out,” he said.