Proposed big box store igniting Pawleys Island residents

dbryant@thesunnews.comSeptember 18, 2012 

  • If you go WHAT | Georgetown County Planning Commission TOPIC | Proposed redevelopment of shopping center in Pawleys Island WHEN | 5:30 p.m. Thursday WHERE | Waccamaw High School auditorium, 2412 Kings River Road, Pawleys Island

— The quiet, laidback lifestyle of this small seaside town is what lured Frank Fuerneisen to move here from the hustle and bustle of his northern Virginia residence just outside Washington, D.C.

But Fuerneisen -- and many residents like him -- are afraid that a plan to redevelop a 27-year-old shopping center potentially with a Walmart or other big-box store in the heart of this proud “arrogantly shabby” community will take away the very atmosphere that led him here.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that developed,” Fuerneisen said while gesturing to the site off U.S. 17 across from Pawleys Island Community Church, where he was leaving a meeting the site’s developer had with residents Monday evening. “But I don’t like the idea of a big box store. I moved down here to get away from that sort of thing. It’s quaint.”

Many Pawleys residents, who successfully kept a Lowes Home Improvement store out of their town about seven years ago with their “Don’t box the Neck” efforts, have vocally opposed the plan by Mount Pleasant-based Sunbelt Ventures, which will get its first of several governmental tests Thursday at the Georgetown County Planning Commission.

Sunbelt, which focuses on redeveloping bank-owned or rundown commercial centers like this one, wants to overhaul the half-empty shopping center site, demolishing what’s there and replacing it with a 119,500-square-foot store and three commercial outparcels, each just shy of about 10,000 square feet. Much of the zoning in this area, dubbed the Waccamaw Neck Commercial Corridor Overlay Zone, prohibits buildings larger than 60,000 square feet; the proposed new building nearly twice that size would sit just outside that zone.

The shopping center site is about 12 acres, but Sunbelt aims to buy another five acres at the rear to create a 17-acre site. Existing stores there would stay but move into new buildings, and the developer plans to install a stoplight to help with the extra traffic a redeveloped center is expected to generate.

Walmart hasn’t signed on, but is in discussions with Sunbelt about occupying that large store spot, said Sunbelt’s Dusty Wiederhold.

“There is no commitment on either our side to them or them to us,” he said. “They have expressed interest. There is a fairly strong interest on their part to do it.”

Requests for information from Walmart went unanswered this week.

Some opponents don’t like the idea of Walmart moving in, potentially putting some of the small locally owned shops out of business, especially when there are Walmarts within 15 or so miles to the north and south. Others don’t like the idea of any big box store or the traffic it would bring.

“I moved here to get away from the traffic and all that stuff,” Fuerneisen said. “You don’t have all the Myrtle Beach stuff. If I want that, I don’t mind driving 15 miles.”

Other opponents just don’t like the way they’ve been left out of the discussions about what will be built on the site. Sunbelt has been talking with Georgetown County staff about the project for nearly a year; residents just heard about it a month ago.

Resident Peg Howell said it was “like being smacked upside the head.

“The community needs to be part of the conversations early on,” she said. “I’m less concerned about who it is than what impact it will have on our community. Redevelopment is an interesting concept but doing that consistent with the way in which our town has evolved.”

Sunbelt says the $20 million project -- which it says has the potential to create between 200 and 300 jobs, though critics ask how many existing jobs it would take away -- will architecturally fit with Pawleys unique look and clean up environmental damage left by a dry cleaner that used to operate there.

To handle the estimated 5,700 cars a day a traffic study says the development is expected to generate, the developer plans to install a stoplight at U.S. 17 and Petigru Drive and extend and improve Richardson Lane to Waverly Road.

The Georgetown County planning staff is recommending the Planning Commission approve the project, under 14 conditions that include requiring the traffic improvements, making the large building architecturally fit with the zoning overlay standards except size, meeting certain landscape requirements and addressing the loading zones for the outparcels along U.S. 17, according to the staff’s eight-page assessment of the project.

The staff view the project favorably because of the location of the main building to U.S. 17 with the outparcels meeting overlay requirements, and it would put the property back into compliance with current building and stormwater rules.

“It is important to note that this project is development of an existing commercial site which is usually encouraged,” the county planning staff wrote in its recommendation. “The project would not be viewed favorably by staff if it was all new development on undisturbed land.”

Though outnumbered, some residents who attended a meeting with Sunbelt officials Monday say they want to see Walmart move in.

Resident Kathy Griffith said it would be more convenient than having to drive the roughly 15 miles to Georgetown -- and more economical with gas prices climbing higher.

“Personally I want it,” she said. “Not everybody is against it.”

Resident Karen Stairs also said it would be more convenient to have the store closer.

“I have to drive to Georgetown or the beach and it’s a pain,” she said. “Bring Walmart here. I think it is great.”

The proposal has been such a hot topic around town that officials have moved the Planning Commission’s meeting Thursday to the auditorium at Waccamaw High School to handle the crowd of residents that’s expected.

Opponents -- who have started an online petition that had 2,036 signatures by Tuesday afternoon and created pages on social media sites such as Facebook -- are coordinating T-shirts to wear during Thursday’s meeting aiming to send a message to the planning commission, which will send a recommendation on the project to the Georgetown County Council.

“We think this is a very special place that people come to because it’s small and friendly,” said resident Terry Munson, who started the online petition. “We just don’t want that [kind of development] for our community.”

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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