Donut shop drive-thru on Lady’s Island denied permit 


 By Tony Kukulich 

The Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBOA) denied a request last week for a special use permit to construct a Dunkin’ Donuts with drive-thru service on Lady’s Island. 

The Feb. 24 meeting marked the fifth time that developer Graham Trask brought his project planned for 131 Sea Island Parkway before the board. It was the project’s drive-thru that proved its undoing. 

A standing-room-only crowd packed the County Council chambers. Many, though not all, of those who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting expressed concern over how traffic would be impacted if construction was permitted. Specifically, those who spoke in opposition to the project worried about drive-thru traffic backing up onto the heavily traveled Sea Island Parkway. 

It appeared that county officials shared that worry. 

The county staff report, presented by Robert Merchant, Beaufort County Planning and Zoning Director, recommended denial of the special use permit. As recently as Feb. 10, county staff had recommended the permit’s approval with post-approval conditions. 

Merchant explained that the reversal was in response to direction received from the County Council. According to Merchant, the staff was directed to consider revising county ordinances to require all new drive-thru businesses to have two means of entry and exit. The current code has no such requirement, and the planned Dunkin’ Donuts had a single point of entry and exit. The direction was, he said, a response to Trask’s development initiative. 

Discussion about updating the county ordinance to clarify drive-thru standards started last fall, said Chris Ophardt, Beaufort County public information officer in an email to The Island News this week.

“The current drive-thru on Lady’s Island happens to be the first seeking approval and parallels the changes that were being brought through the county staff to committee to county council,” Ophardt said.

If discussions on revising drive-thru regulations started in the fall, it is unclear why the county staff recommended granting Trask’s permit on Feb. 10. If the county’s position changed after Feb. 10, it’s unclear what motivated that change.

Despite the county’s position, Merchant made the point that the ZBOA still had the power to grant Trask’s permit request.

“Just a reminder, there’s discretion that you have as decision makers whether or not you grant special use permits,” Merchant said. “You’re not bound by meeting a specific list of criteria. That’s what we’re bound to as staff. I wanted to remind you of that. As long as you have findings for making your decision, you have the freedom to approve or deny the special use permit. The staff, because of the strong will of the planning commission, the natural resource (commission) and county council, we cannot recommend approval at this time.”

The county’s change of course appeared to be a surprise to the members of the ZBOA. After Merchant distributed hard copies of the county staff’s revised recommendation dated Feb. 24, Vice Chairman Chester Williams responded with incredulity and called the county’s decision “crazy.”

County Administrator Eric Greenway addressed the board and started by stating that he was prevented from getting to his home earlier that day by traffic backed up from drive-thru restaurants on Boundary Street.

“Drive-thru restaurants right now are creating a problem all across this county and in other jurisdictions,” Greenway said. “So, staff has to reevaluate those changing conditions for drive-thru restaurants, how they’re operating and how they’re likely to operate in the foreseeable future.”

Williams countered that Trask’s project meets the county standards as they currently exist.

“What you want to do is hold up Mr. Trask when, as of Feb. 10 he had complied with all the rules in the staff’s opinion, and he met all the criteria for a special approval,” Williams said. “And now, because of pressure from the politicians and the planning commissioner on the staff, you want to change the recommendation, and that’s just not right. … The bottom line here is that the staff wants to recommend disapproval here because they may change the rules, and that’s not right.”

Trask said he was flabbergasted by the county’s revised recommendation.

“This is, I guess, a way for Mr. Greenway to get the county into court,” he said. “I came in here based on following the law. I followed the law. I met all the conditions of the special use (permit). And yet, your analogy of having the rug pulled out from under me is very apt. And that’s illegal. We’re playing by the law now, and what Mr. Greenway is suggesting you do is defer so he can change the law and then my project can’t be approved under his rationale.”

Speaking after the vote, Trask said he planned to review the board’s actions with his legal counsel before making any decisions regarding further legal actions.

Prior to making a motion to deny Trask’s request for a special use permit, Board member Jane Frederick referenced the board’s responsibility under the Beaufort County Community Development Code to incorporate public opinion into the decision making process. She noted that she had received 177 emails opposing the project and only a single email expressing support for the project. Further, she referenced the approximately 940 signatures gathered by the Sea Island Corridor Coalition – a grassroots organization advocating public involvement in local government – opposing the project.

When the board took up Frederick’s motion, the vote split 4-2 with Williams and John Chemsak opposing the motion to deny Trask’s permit.

“I think it sends a strong signal that Lady’s Island as a community remains committed to improving the place, and that those who wish to develop here need to keep the community’s priorities in mind,” wrote Chuck Newton of the Sea Island Corridor Coalition. “Turnouts – and petition signers and e-mails – like we saw or heard about that tonight, demonstrate that Lady’s Islanders are serious about fixing what needs fixing. If developers waltz in with plans that carry no community benefit, people will stand up and demand more. We’re not going away.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He and his wife enjoy exploring their new home state. He can also frequently be found playing bass guitar with a couple of local bands. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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