One small change to the Imagine 2040 Comprehensive draft proposal sparked concerns of a potential loophole making development easier in environmentally-constrained areas. The debate played out at the Horry County Planning Commission meeting Thursday.
The change was to a policy guideline in the definition of scenic and conservation in the proposed plan’s land-use element. This definition directs planning commission on what is and isn’t appropriate to build on environmentally-sensitive or protected lands.
Under the proposed plan, scenic and conservation would allow for recreational uses, mining, educational facilities and multi-acre home lots. The change to the policy guidelines would give developers a chance to say their property is safe to build on and allow them to build higher-density housing than what the plan would usually allow. And the developer must address potential hazards, be consistent with the “character of the community” and adhere to county regulations.
This is part of the sentence verbatim from the draft proposal: “In cases where more site specific information, such as wetland delineations and soil data, is available to show that a property or a portion of a property is not environmentally constrained, that information may be presented to the Planning Commission to be considered for uses other than those defined within the recommended land use list or described development pattern.”
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This means, hypothetically, if a developer can prove that their scenic and conservation property is safe to build on, planning commission can legally vote to approve the property for higher-density building, even if the scenic and conservation definition does not list higher-density housing as a recommended use of that property.
The change comes after the “Bear Tracts” rezoning request in November that sought to build 1,500 homes off Old Highway 90 on an area defined as scenic and conservation in the current comprehensive plan. And with several other projects requesting rezonings in environmentally-sensitive areas, planning commission is looking to change how it evaluates these properties.
Senior Planner Leigh Kane said the changes to the guidelines came from public input submitted to the county and is not in response to the Bear Tracts.
“The change is to provide Planning Commission with a robust set of tools to help them evaluate rezoning requests in the Scenic and Conservation future land use designations,” said Kane in an email. Kane oversaw the year-long drafting project of this plan.
The potential for building on these lands brought out representatives from the Coastal Conservation League, The Waccamaw Riverkeeper and past members of the Imagine 2040 AdHoc committee, which helped with the plan’s creation. People who spoke during public comment were concerned this would lead to less protections of sensitive lands and allow developers more ability to build there, potentially threatening natural flood mitigators and the environmental heritage.
“These places need more protection, not less,” said Erin Pate, the director of the Conservation League for the Pee Dee region.
The 2040 plan greatly increased the amount of scenic and conservation land in the county compared to the current Envision 2025 comprehensive plan. Environmentally-sensitive areas were determined using a broad scale with the best information available, but it wasn’t a perfect system that looked at each property individually, Kane said when creating the plan. She said the new definition allows for developers to use localized data to show what conditions are like on the individual property.
If the definition stays in, rezoning applicants can use factors like soil samples and wetland delineations to show planning commission that their projects are safe for building. It will still be up to the individual commissioners’ and county council members’ votes to recommend or approve the project, but this will allow the commission to approve the project without changing the land-use map.
“If that information is available, an applicant can present that information to the Planning Commission for their review and consideration,” she said in an email.
Pam Creech, who sat on the 2040 plan AdHoc committee, said she supports the plan, but not this change. For her, the residents of Horry County did not ask for this change. And given recent developments looking to build in scenic and conservation areas, the changes to the definition could be a “loophole” for developers to get their projects approved.
“I think we need to be real careful when we start saying we are going to look at one soil sample or something else and say we don’t need to address it with this plan,” she said.
Another member of the 2040 AdHoc Committee member Bo Ives said that he understands what the definition change hopes to accomplish and asked the commission to put in specific benchmarks that developers must prove before planning commission votes on the project. Essentially, he argued the definition needed stronger language.
“If there is going to be development in these areas, there needs to be some tough guidelines,” he said. “They need to jump hurdles, not just sway you with a smile.”
Horry County Planning Commission Chair Steven Neeves said he wants to make sure there isn’t a perception of a loophole. Interim Planning Director David Schwerd said that nothing will get rid of any perceptions of a loophole, but staff could change its own strategic plan and the zoning ordinance itself to include more information on soil types and land qualities to guide commission’s decision.
“This plan is just one of many we have in Horry County,” Schwerd said.
He suggested changing the zoning ordinance to set up the benchmarks, satisfying some of the concerns. Schwerd said it’s impossible to make everyone happy, but this change is the best medium.
“I think creating a longer checklist based on these criteria that are addressing these concerns would be good for planning commissioners, the developer and the community,” Schwerd said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Neeves thanked staff for all of their hard work and said he hopes this definition allows planning commission to better evaluate projects in an easier, fairer way.
“It’s an even playing field,” Neeves said. “That’s good business.”
Then Planning Commission passed the resolution endorsing the plan to County Council, with the additions to the scenic and conservation definitions. The plan will face three readings at council, including public comment at the second reading in January. Passing this plan will be one of the first tasks for new Council Chair Johnny Gardner.