GEORGETOWN — The Georgetown County Planning Commission voted March 16 to defer an ordinance that would remove itself and the Georgetown County Council from site plan reviews of multi-family developments.
The vote was 6-0 with commission member John J. Walker absent. Even if passed by the Planning Commission at a later date, the amendment to county zoning ordinance requires the County Council's approval.
Georgetown County Planning Director Holly Richardson said the county received "a good bit" of written opposition to the amendment, some of it alleging the amendment was the county's way of attempting to silence the public.
"I just wanted to clarify that that is not what we're doing here," Richardson said. "Certainly, this process itself is an open process."
Under county zoning ordinance, a development of two-family or multifamily housing of more than five units per acre or 10 units total must be reviewed by the Planning Commission and approved by the County Council. Such projects require notification of property owners within 400 feet of the construction site and a public hearing before the Planning Commission.
Under the proposal the Planning Commission considered March 16, site plan reviews would be a function of county planning staff. The radius required for notification of a multifamily development would increase to 600 feet, and the period for notification would change from within 21 days of a public hearing to 15 days of an application.
Multifamily developments were reviewed by the county zoning department in a similar manner to single-family homes and commercial projects until 2008. At that time, due to the Planning Commission's concerns about prior notice of multifamily developments, multifamily projects were required to be reviewed as planned developments.
A further amendment was approved in 2011 in the aftermath of a South Carolina Supreme Court case to allow public notice and hearings and site plan reviews by the Planning Commission and County Council.
The original amendment was approved in the middle of the Great Recession of 2007-09, at a time when "very little development was taking place due to the economic downturn," according to the proposal presented to the Planning Commission.
The amendment was requested by the Council, which has approved multiple developments over the past year that were previously rejected by the Planning Commission and eventually landed the county in court.
Multiple residents spoke against the amendment on March 16, questioning its effect on transparency and public input.
"The fact that five other South Carolina counties all handle site plan reviews at the staff level doesn't necessarily justify that Georgetown County should follow suit," Board Chairman Duane Draper of Keep It Green Advocacy said, referring to a section in the amendment's introduction that stated the county contacted other counties regarding their policy for site plan reviews.
Cynthia Ranck Person, the executive director and chief legal counsel of Keep It Green, sent the planning commission a letter on March 15 regarding the amendment. Person wrote that while her organization "whole-heartedly" supported an amendment to bring the site plan review process and general residential ordinance in compliance with state law, further issues needed to be addressed.
Namely, Person wrote, conflicts with the county comprehensive plan and land development regulations need to be settled, further guidelines for communication are necessary and notice requirements should be extended.
"For the above reasons, we respectfully request Planning Commission to defer this item pending further review of the above issues," Person wrote.