Georgetown County planners deny request for high-density rezoning
August 23rd, 2017
By Clayton Stairs
A controversial rezoning request for 948 acres along Pennyroyal Road and the Sampit River may not go forward if Georgetown County Council follows a recommendation from county planners.
The Georgetown County Planning Commission voted unanimously at its Aug. 17 meeting to recommend that County Council deny the rezoning of the property from forest/agriculture to heavy industrial, with part of the property remaining zoned conservation/preservation. County Council will consider the rezoning in up to three readings at upcoming meetings. The first reading, by title only, will be during the Aug. 22 meeting starting at 5:30 p.m. in County Council chambers in the old courthouse on Screven Street.
Residents opposed to the rezoning, including a newly formed group called "Save the Sampit" and environmental groups, said the rezoning will open the property up for industry that will threaten the environment, increase traffic and reduce property values for nearby residents. They also said the county has not done studies of the property, including environmental, traffic, endangered species and geological studies.
Brian Tucker, county economic development director, who was speaking for the rezoning, said the county plans to purchase the property from Red Mountain Timber Co. LLC to attract up to three companies that would provide jobs and economic growth for the county.
The county's current Future Land Use map shows the property as industrial, so the request is consistent with the county's comprehensive plan.
He said the studies residents are concerned about will be done for the property if and when the county purchases it, but since the county does not know what industries may be coming, those studies have not yet been done.
The rezoning request was deferred at the planners' July 20 meeting after hearing concerns from about a dozen nearby residents, including reduced property values, traffic, noise and fear of pollution from potential industrial businesses. The only change to the original request since that meeting was that staff recommended that part of the property zoned conservation/preservation remain the same, said Senior Planner Holly Richardson.
Tucker told the commission that he wanted to "clarify the county's intentions" and "ease as much anxiety and uncertainty as possible."
"My orders from County Council are to do whatever I need to do to position us for good jobs with fine companies that respect our residents, our communities and our natural resources," he said. "It is important for everyone to understand that this site will allow us to offer jobs to our residents and would give us a competitive advantage."
He related some statistics, saying that 13,025 Georgetown County residents leave the county to go to work each day, including professional white-collar workers, blue collar craftsmen and people in the hospitality industry. He also said that 6,707 people have a minimum of 50 miles to drive one-way to work and 28.1 percent of county residents in the workforce are still living below poverty level.
"We need jobs that pay more than minimum wage," Tucker said. "We need to focus on industries and manufacturing jobs that would provide a living wage that don't require advanced formal education."
He also said the Pennyroyal Road property is a unique property that would offer industries characteristics you can't find in Georgetown County and there are few in the state or East Coast. He said it has access to rail, water, sewer, natural gas, power, fiber and has 4,670 feet of frontage along the Sampit River for possible barge traffic.
Ten people spoke against the rezoning during the Aug. 17 meeting, but dozens of others were in the audience with signs and T-shirts reading "Save the Sampit." Kathy Brooks said that she was shocked to learn that property that is right outside her back door could be zoned heavy industrial.
"We don’t want this," she said. "We agree that Georgetown County needs jobs, but since the county is so reluctant to share relevant information about what may come to the property, we have to consider the worst."
The Rev. Sandra Ladson, pastor of St. Michael AME Church, which is adjacent to the property, expressed concerns about area residents and their property values.
"The residents are concerned about their children and the value of their homes," she said. "This plan is a direct slap in the face of all they worked for."
Other speakers commented about possible effects on the environment.
"Companies won't come here if they can't discharge things in the river and the air," area resident Dale Parsons said. "We don’t want to rezone it, then have it sit there for 20 years, and we also don’t want it to be a dumping ground for any industry that can't find another place."
Ron Church said he agrees that the 948 acres in question is unique.
"I'd agree that the property is unique because 65 percent of its boundary is along a river, creek or marsh," he said. "The Winyah Bay and rivers that flow into it are the most significant asset we have and this proposal, in a very real way, risks those assets."
Amelia Thompson with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and Erin Pate with the Coastal Conservation League also spoke against the rezoning.
"We are concerned about Georgetown County getting into this type of real estate transaction, trusting that everything will be handled properly," Thompson said. "There is no document in place for studies or the purchase of the property."
Pate said the county plays an important role in protecting the environment and this is a critical decision.
"(Tucker) has promised that the county won't allow another steel mill or other harmful industry on this property, but once it is rezoned and sold, that will be difficult to control and could result in bulk storage of petroleum, or manufacturing, processing, transport of such products."
She said the Sampit River and the Pennyroyal community already bear heavy industry and another heavy industrial company could forever change the lives of all the people who live nearby.
"The Sampit River has suffered industrial pollution," Pate said. "Georgetown residents should not and do not need to choose between jobs and quality of life."
Tucker said the county will evaluate the site. He added that rezoning is only part of the process.
"We'd like to rezone it first because we need this property under our control and zoned appropriately," Tucker said. "If we go through the studies and evaluations and determine, for whatever reason, that we can't get permits, our recommendation to County Council will be to not purchase the property."