GEORGETOWN — Concern over higher density development in the Pawleys Island area dominated another monthly meeting of Georgetown’s planning commission.
The commission did not vote favorably for plans to bring a 14.4-acre parcel located on Petigru Drive across from Commerce Drive that could bring up to 182 apartments and mixed-use commercial construction to the Pawleys Island area in unincorporated Georgetown County. It was denied because of the increase in density.
Cheers erupted after the vote to not recommend the project be ultimately approved. County Council will still have the final say on the plans at an upcoming meeting.
Dozens of community members came out to the Thursday meeting to speak against the plans for a variety of reasons, including a belief that additional development, especially involving construction near wetlands, will increase the traffic and flooding woes along the Waccamaw Neck. More than 100 emails and letters were sent against it, as well.
Only a few spoke in favor of the plans.
The Alliance for Economic Development for Georgetown owns the land in question with the Graycliff Capital Partners acting as the agent hoping to bring the apartment complex. The alliance, a nonprofit founded in 1978, according to the secretary of state’s website, is represented by Brian Tucker, Georgetown’s director for economic development.
Graycliff Capital Partners has apartment and townhome projects in many states, including the Encore at Murrells Inlet Townhomes. Ideally, the apartments would allow for more workforce housing, particularly for young professionals moving to the area.
Those who defended the project on Thursday cited the growing need for housing that can accommodate young professionals.
“The term affordable is defined in different ways, but the technical definition is a person who can secure housing on 30 percent of the make,” said Graycliff's Paul Aiesi , defending the project after more than an hour of public comment.
He cited a dearth of apartment and rental accommodations in the Waccamaw Neck area.
“I believe in high density because I’m a green guy ... high density and economically diverse housing is critical for so many communities.”
County staff proposed a requirement that 5 percent of the units will be reserved for affordable housing based on definitions by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but Aiesi indicated the rest of the apartments would likely still be within the price range of nurses, police officers and other young professionals.
Currently, the land is approved to be a business park with a variety of permitted uses that could operate there as long as county standards were met during the permitting process. The proposed plan seeks to extend the uses to allow for multi-family housing. In addition, since the proposal counts as high density, the land use plan that determines the type of construction appropriate for an area would need to be changed by county council before the plans can be approved.
The proposed project has a net density of 15.8 units per acre. Georgetown County considers a development high density if it has 5.1 to 16 units per acre. Plans also include for a leasing office and pool to be built.
Potential uses for this property have changed over time. Previous property owners in 2008 received approval from the county council to create a planned development agreement for resort uses. Then in 2015 a technology firm bought the land and changed the use for its own purposes.
Commissioners on Thursday were mostly considering one vacant lot out of the three parcel Pawleys Island Business Commons properties. The other two parcels already have buildings on them, including a landscaping business on the first parcel and a technology firm on the second.
If the county council ultimately denies the plan at an upcoming meeting, the PD agreement allows for a whole list of land uses including offices, stores, lodging or a special events center.
“Right now, by right, someone could build a 17,000-square-foot warehouse,” said Seth Pedersen with Graycliff Capital Partners. “It is zoned high density right now ... what we are proposing is a better option. Why? It has more green space and less traffic ... we feel it is a down zoning from what is on the books now.”
In October, the commission deferred any action on these plans to allow more review of a traffic study and to hear from the stormwater department about flooding impacts.
The traffic study expects the multi-family housing to produce 1,062 new car trips per day out of the complex, which the study argues would be fewer new travelers per day than if the property remained a business park. The study believes 50 percent of traffic generated by the complex will head toward Highway 17 using Commerce Drive, instead of adding more traffic on Martin Luther King Drive or Waverly Road like many residents worry would happen once construction ends.
Numerous speakers and commissioners questioned the validity of this study citing that traffic issues in the area are already bad and further development will make it worse. Others also questioned how affordable the housing would actually be.
“Affordable housing isn’t rental units. Affordable housing, to me, is home ownership,” said Pastor Johnny Ford, a native of Pawleys Island who remembers when he could “lie down in the road” on Petigru Drive and was also disappointed with the results of the traffic study.
Throughout Pawleys Island, and really the whole region, flooding and flash flooding concerns follow any new development particularly those near wetlands. Unprecedented rainy seasons coupled with sea level rise is making coastal South Carolina a ground zero for a growing flooding crisis.
“The water level rise in Georgetown County is five times higher than the national level," said Cindy Person with Keep It Green, citing research from Coastal Carolina University. “It’s five times higher than Charleston and Charleston is a drowning city.”
Person cited work from Till Hanebuth, a CCU professor of coastal science, looking at sea level rise. Person asked Georgetown County to work with CCU to complete a long-term study of the rising water challenges facing Georgetown County and how it’ll affect usable land over the coming decades.
“And in the meantime defer any high-density developments until the study is complete,” Person said. After her public comment, the audience clapped in agreement.
While drainage studies were conducted nearby, which are not exactly the same thing Person is calling for, detailed plans for how the property will manage its stormwater will need to be approved before construction begins. A combination of an existing ditch, surrounding wetlands and engineered plans will help hold and slowly discharge stormwater. Regardless of planning commission decisions, no construction can begin without meeting county building and stormwater regulations.
The particular tract of land has wetlands on it, but construction will use them as a buffer, as required. It is also adjacent to important wetlands that drain into the Waccamaw River. Commissioners received emails showing community concern about growth harming natural flood mitigation capacity. Still, even without the county's approval, something could be built on the property as long as it met county standards.
Engineer Walter Warren said modern engineering can better hold its own stormwater and is designed for larger storms than many of the existing construction built more than a decade ago in the Pawleys Island area. He believed the proposed project was a better use than the alternatives use already allowed on the books.
“We feel we have a very good plan ahead of us,” Warren said. “We will find a design that meets and exceeds any of the requirements.”