Panel snags airport plans

Ugly signs, harsh lighting and garish parking garages usually cause the biggest debate during meetings of the Myrtle Beach Community Appearance Board.

But now, dangling from the review board’s fingers is the most important public project facing Horry County - the construction of a bigger terminal at the Myrtle Beach International Airport - which supporters say is critical to the area’s tourism future.

The Community Appearance Board has the power to kill the project - or let it live one more round. That power is unusual for such a board, according to experts who specialize in South Carolina planning issues.

The appearance board stunned county officials when it voted 6-1 on Dec. 21 to reject the building’s location. After years of discussions and workshops, county officials said they thought approval would be a slam dunk.

Board members said the new terminal - which would have 14 gates, double the number at the current terminal - would create too much noise, traffic and other hazards for the thousands of new residents expected to flood the former Air Force Base in coming years.

Local elected officials were stupefied that this board, whose volunteer members are appointed by the city council and generally make decisions about a project’s aesthetics, could have such an impact.

“I just thought they were really stepping out on a limb,” said Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach.

Broad powers for board

Three municipal planning experts said the Myrtle Beach board’s job description is more subjective than most in the state - allowing members to rule on issues that affect everyday living rather than abiding by comprehensive design guidelines.

Similar boards usually make decisions on aesthetics, but in Myrtle Beach, the board has broad powers.

Part of the city code governing the board charges it with improving property values, preventing blight, creating “pleasant environments” and sustaining the “comfort, health, tranquility and contentment of residents.”

“You’re in rare waters, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Tripp Muldrow, the outgoing president of the S.C. American Planning Association.

On Thursday, the board will hear a plea from the county to take up the item again. If an appeal isn’t granted, Horry County officials say the project - which has consumed local politics for the past five years and cost millions of dollars and countless hours of work - is dead.

If county officials want to challenge the decision, they’ll head to circuit court.

The county would probably lose a price quote for the airport’s construction if it had to go through a lengthy legal process, said John Weaver, Horry County attorney.

Developers need to order steel and other construction materials by Jan. 17 to prevent prices from climbing, Weaver said.

If the board acquiesces, terminal supporters have one final hurdle: a Jan. 16 vote by County Council.

This is hardly the first time this type of board - more frequently called an architecture review board - has created a ruckus in South Carolina, said Howard Duvall, executive director of the S.C. Municipal Association.

But experts say that most disagreements are over tearing down historic buildings or making sure signs and building colors conform with the neighborhood.

Muldrow, who is currently working for Myrtle Beach on a project that is not related to the airport terminal, said he was unsure of any large projects where a review board had this much subjective power over such a sizeable project.

But he said he was not surprised that an airport in the middle of the city would be controversial.

“Airports rank down there with landfills as far as not wanting them expanding into residential areas,” Muldrow said. “We’re going back to Planning 101. ... They have very negative impacts on traffic and noise and things like that.”

Before 2000, appeals of Community Appearance Board decisions went before City Council. In 1999, the city changed the procedure to conform with a state law that shifted the appeal to the circuit court.

The state law was passed to clean up overlapping and contradictory legislation, Duvall said.

He said appeals of the board’s decisions were always supposed to go to circuit court.

Most Myrtle Beach City Council members, while not criticizing the board’s decision on the terminal, said they think the power should remain in the hands of the council.

“Why would you want to take power away from the local government and send it to the courts?” Councilman Mike Chestnut said. “Why do you feel like the local, elected officials cannot handle an appeal and deal with it?”

The ABCs of the CAB

The Community Appearance Board is one of two city boards whose members are appointed by City Council but whose decisions are appealed to the circuit court. The other is the Zoning Board of Appeals.

To get building permits, developers must get approval from the board for all multi-family and oceanfront residential properties, as well as all commercial construction within the city. That includes anything on the county-run airport, which is within city limits.

The appearance board - referred to in Myrtle Beach as the CAB and in other cities as the architecture review board - is charged with making sure the city does not become too garish or ugly, and that design principles are followed.

State law does not require Myrtle Beach to have the board, Duvall said. But city staff members and council members say it helps with the immense workload the city faces.

“All you have to do is ride to the city limits and cross them,” Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means said. “Look at the south end highway where all that junk is. Look at the north end, at the signage and the proliferation of blinking lights and all. The CAB has made Myrtle Beach look beautiful and made Myrtle Beach look the way it does today. And I’m grateful to them for that.”

The board rarely dismisses projects for quality of life reasons, as it did the airport terminal, said Bruce Boulineau, construction services director whose staff members are the board’s liaisons.

City Council members say they select appearance board members because of their dedication to the community, as well as their professional experience. The city designated two seats on the board for architects and one for a certified arborist, or tree expert.

Two Realtors, two architects, an arborist and the owner of a landscaping firm are on the board, as well as several community members who are heavily involved in volunteering in civic projects.

It’s sometimes difficult for the council to find people to serve on the board, precisely because of the time commitment. Busy professionals might not have time to attend twice-a-month meetings that can easily last seven or eight hours.

Council members often do not ask applicants questions about specific projects, or even whether they are against growth and development.

Instead, the council generally asks why applicants want to serve, what they think they could contribute, and whether they would have the time to do a good job.

For example, board member Ben Brown, who owns B&M Custom Cycles, was asked to apply because he attended nearly every council meeting and workshop and seemed interested in what was happening in the city, several council members said.

The city council has the power to wipe the slate clean - fire every board member and stack the board with pro-airport residents. But every council member balked at that idea - and most laughed.

Regardless of their thoughts on the terminal project, city council members said they wanted to respect the boundaries and not interfere with the decisions of the review board.

“We’re really out of it,” Chestnut said. “If that’s the way state law has it set up, then that’s the way it should go. We made our decision, we did our part, and it’s up to them to make their decision.”

Contact LISA FLEISHER at 626-0317 or lfleisher@thesunnews.com.