Changes to Georgetown County’s goals for protecting natural resources will be put on hold while it revises its plan for future land use. The decision was the second time this year that the county delivered a Tuesday-night surprise on its natural resources plan.
The plan is one of the elements of the comprehensive plan that local governments are required by state law to adopt and then update every 10 years. The Planning Commission went through six drafts before sending a natural resources plan to County Council that would have addressed impacts on the environment from single-use plastics, promoted the purchase of sensitive habitats through grants and a “green sales tax,” created a wetlands ordinance and looked at stricter zoning standards to help preserve forest property.
When the plan came up for approval by the council last month, conservation groups who showed up at a public hearing to support it discovered that it had been changed by the county staff. It no longer included the reopening tidal marshes to shellfish harvesting or purchasing land for preservation. Restrictions on single-use plastics and a call to limit of septic tanks in sensitive areas were gone. So was a call for a marshfront management plan that mirrors the county’s beachfront plan.
This week, the groups returned to ask the council to send the plan back to the Planning Commission rather than approve a watered-down version. Instead, the council deferred a vote “indefinitely.”
Council Member Clint Elliott made the motion so that “consideration can be given to the land-use element to ensure that they do not conflict with each other.”
The county is hiring a consultant for the land-use element, which forms the basis for the county’s zoning ordinance. The work is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.
Becky Ryon, North Coast director of the Coastal Conservation League, was pleased by the decision, but concerned that there was no indication of how the staff revisions to the natural resources plan would be handled.
She said the process could set a precedent for the land-use plan.
“If we go to all that effort to get community input, I don’t want County Council to take a red pen to it,” she said.
A seventh revision to the natural resources plan had restored some goals, including a marshfront management plan for Murrells Inlet.
Emily Nellermoe, staff attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, said that revision didn’t go far enough.
“The problems I saw before are still there,” she said. “They should go back to the version that came out of Planning Commission.”
The law that requires the comprehensive plan doesn’t provide for staff to make changes to the commission’s recommendation, she added.
“We have lost transparency in the process,” Nellermoe said. “We’re all wondering why.”
The council voted to defer action without discussion.