Fu­ture of Horry’s con­ser­va­tion land may hinge on one sen­tence

The Sun News - - Local - BY TYLER FLEM­ING tflem­[email protected]­sun­news.com

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 the 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.”

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 high­er­den­sity 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. En­vi­ron­men­tall­y­sen­si­tive 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.

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