A group of Horry County Council members walked out of a meeting Tuesday night in a defiant move that thwarted another councilman’s effort to reconsider a controversial rezoning request.
Minutes after council members narrowly voted against rezoning more than 860 acres for a subdivision of nearly 1,500 homes, councilman Paul Prince made a motion to reconsider the vote. Prince’s motion came after scores of residents opposed to the rezoning had cleared out of council chambers.
Realizing what was happening, five council members left the meeting, preventing the panel from having the quorum needed to legally vote on Prince’s request. Councilmen Harold Worley, Johnny Vaught, Tyler Servant, Dennis DiSabato and Danny Hardee walked out. They were the same ones who voted against the rezoning.
“This is bull,” Worley said. “We need to get up and walk out that door. … You don’t have a quorum. You can’t do this.”
The meeting finally resumed when council chairman Mark Lazarus, who wasn’t present for the rezoning vote because he’d recused himself, came back into the room and took over the meeting. The members who had walked out joined him and Prince’s motion did not get a vote.
Prince said he asked for the reconsideration because he was confused about the vote he had just cast. He was with the majority on a 6-5 decision rejecting the rezoning request. Had Prince officially changed his vote, the project would have received the second of the three supportive votes needed to make the rezoning permanent.
The project has been debated for months. The site sits along Old Highway 90, which connects with S.C. 90. The county's planning staff and the planning commission had asked the council not to approve the rezoning because the project conflicts with the county's land use plan, which calls for that area to remain conservation land.
What makes the project unusual is that some of the property already holds a residential zoning. The reason is that zoning was approved before the county adopted its land use plan 10 years ago.
The landowners want the property to be rezoned to a designation that would allow smaller lots, meaning more homes could be built there. The developer offered to contribute about $4 million toward infrastructure enhancements if the higher density was approved.
Claude Epps, who is part of the ownership group that acquired the property decades ago, said the land was always expected to be an investment property and its development is tied to the retirement package of some longtime employees of the Bellamy Law Firm.
“As it’s been said many times, we can develop them as they are presently zoned,” he said of the tracts, though he noted that the owners would prefer to have the higher density from the rezoning. “We think it’s the best thing for everybody, including the county.”
Mike Wooten, an engineer worked on the project, said the rezoning would allow the developer to add 574 lots to the subdivision. He pointed out that other rezonings approved by the council on Tuesday did not have developers pledging the kind of resources his clients put on the table.
“Not one dime was offered to the county,” he said.
Despite those arguments, the residents who packed council chambers were not convinced. Many wore stickers that said “Public safety first.”
During a hearing before the vote, residents raised concerns about traffic, flooding and the dangers of unchecked development in the S.C. 90 corridor.
Orlando Watson, who grew up along BB Watson Road, said he worries about development covering land that soaks up floodwater. Like many of his neighbors, he’s also concerned about the condition of the already busy highway.
“Traffic is horrible on Highway 90,” he said.
Some council members echoed those concerns. They said that project would add congestion to a highway that already needs infrastructure improvements.
“I don’t want to see Highway 90 turn into what we are dealing with still in Carolina Forest,” said DiSabato, referring to Carolina Forest Boulevard, a two-lane road that hasn’t been widened yet. “That road should have been built before the houses were there.”
Vaught noted that hundreds of homes could already be constructed on the property under the existing zoning.
“The land is already zoned to be developed and it was zoned at the request of the owners,” he said. “To me, this looks like just a way to increase the return on the investment.”
Worley stressed that the surging growth in the county highlights the need for state lawmakers to overhaul South Carolina’s policies on impact fees.
Last week, more than 70 percent of Horry County voters supported the fees, which are one-time levies on new construction. Council members have said the current law is too restrictive and state officials need to make the policy more flexible.
“If not, you’re going to see massive tax increases,” Worley said, adding that the hikes might scare some people. “They’re going to double and triple because of new development.”
And the growth isn't showing signs of slowing. Recently, Worley said, a developer filed paperwork with the county for a project of nearly 3,000 homes in the S.C. 905 corridor.
“This is a baby compared to that one,” Worley said of the 1,500-home project.
Before the 6-5 split Tuesday night, council members talked about delaying their decision on the S.C. 90 area project until a new chairman could be seated in January.
However, they ultimately opted to proceed with the vote.
Afterwards, council members took a break so the residents who showed up for the rezoning discussion could leave the meeting. But when the chamber was nearly empty and the meeting resumed, Prince put forward his motion to reconsider.
That led to the walkout.
After the meeting, Prince told myhorrynews.com that he didn’t understand he was voting against the rezoning when he did just that. He said he thought the vote was to delay the decision.
“That was all,” he said.
Yet while the council was voting on the rezoning request Prince could be heard asking what they were voting on. Council members told him the vote was for the rezoning.
Procedurally, Prince could still ask the council to reconsider the vote at the start of the panel's Dec. 18 meeting. Until the minutes are approved, a motion for reconsideration is allowed by someone who voted on the prevailing side.
But if Tuesday's bizarre exchange was any indication, that suggestion might not go over well.
Vaught said he objected to Prince’s actions because of the timing.
“That would’ve made it look like we were doing business in secret,” he said.
Felicia Soto, one of the rezoning opponents who left the meeting after the vote, agreed. She praised the council members who walked out for representing the residents' interests.
"Their actions spoke 1,000 times," she said. "Those five men getting up and actually standing up for the community as they did spoke volumes."