Town planning commission ignores FAA, supports rezoning

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMay 1, 2013 

Disregarding recommendations from federal, state, county and town authorities, a Hilton Head Island planning board voted Wednesday to support rezoning of a failed residential development off Beach City Road, not far from an airport runway.

The commission voted 5-3 in favor of rezoning the 8.56-acre property from low-to-moderate residential density to high residential density. The rezoning would allow the owners, 217 Beach City Road LLC, to develop 12 homes per acre instead of four homes per acre as its current zoning allows.

Terry Ennis, David Bennett and chairwoman Gail Quick dissented.

The town's Planning and Development Standards Committee will review the rezoning request May 22. Town Council will give it a first reading at the June 18 meeting.

The property owners say their lender has set a May 30 deadline to secure the rezoning or face foreclosure. Though they will not meet that deadline, company representatives said Wednesday they hope the Bank of North Carolina will grant an extension now that progress has been made.

The Federal Aviation Administration, S.C. Aeronautics Commission, Beaufort County government and Town of Hilton Head Island staff advised against an increase in the property's allowable density.

The parcel is about 3,000 feet from the north end of Hilton Head Island Airport's runway and falls within the airport's approach path and partially within the outer hazard zone.

Both the FAA and SCAC wrote in letters to the town that the rezoning is "incompatible" with the airport.

The state commission also said people in that area would be subject to "major safety and quality-of-life risks," and dense residential development might make it more difficult to get permission and funding for future runway extensions.

The country and town staff agreed.

However, some committee members doubted the risk of chronic noise or an airplane crash on the property should keep the land from being rezoned.

"Wouldn't the market determine the risk?" Tom Lennox said. "If it was a significant issue to the people on the ground, they would choose not to reside there."

But Ennis said the zoning change amounts to the difference between a rowboat or a large ship striking an iceberg.

"The risk doesn't change, but the consequence does," Ennis said.

"I know it doesn't increase the risk, but you are taking a deliberate action by increasing the number of people that would be affected if you changed it to (high density)," Quick added.

The zoning would change the height restriction on structures built on the property from 35 to 45 feet, still within the limit allowed by the airport's approach path and hazard zones, according to town planner Jamie Lopko. And that would still be the case if the runway is extended by 300 feet then an additional 400 feet, per the county's airport plans.

However, the increased density would contradict a master land use plan for Ward 1 written in 1999, which called for no more than eight, single-family units per acre, according to Lopko.

The property owner faces foreclosure if it is not rezoned for higher density, according to company representatives and the town.

Only one house has been built on the 32 planned lots at the development, Beach City Place, since 2009. The property was purchased that year by 217 Beach City Road LLC.

Rezoning the property for higher density could make it more economically viable, said Chet Williams, a lawyer who represented the property owners at the meeting, and committee member David Bennett, who a real estate developer with Bennett & Reindl.

Rand Hanna, a lawyer who also spoke on the property owner's behalf, said duplexes or apartments could be built.

"Having been property owners for over 70 years, it would be difficult to sit back and watch our property go out because of a rezoning issue," said Rosa Cromwell, one the 217 Beach City Road's seven principals, six of whom are native-islander sisters.

But, the ownership group is not in agreement that rezoning is best for the land.

Alethea Jackson, a principal in 217 Beach City Road, and her husband, David, own the development's lone developed lot. They were unable to attend Wednesday's meeting because they were in Charleston for legal malpractice mediations.

However, the Jacksons sent a letter to town staff stating they are opposed to the rezoning.

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