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A debate over property owners' rights and environmental protection once again ended in a deadlock on whether 143 acres near the Okatie River should be allowed commercial and denser residential zoning.
This time it was the Beaufort County Planning Commission unable to decide Monday whether land owned by John, Robert and Paul Graves could be switched from rural zoning, which allows one house per three acres, to suburban and commercial regional zoning.
The commercial regional zoning would affect 64 acres at the front of the property near U.S. 278. It would allow the heaviest use, including big-box retail stores and car dealerships.
The suburban zoning, which would allows up to five houses per acre, would cover the rest of the land.
The commission's tie vote followed nearly two hours of public comments and panel discussion. The commission consists of nine members, but member Mary Lagree was unable to attend. A tie means the request goes to the County Council without recommendation.
Half of the commission said the commercial zoning would allow too much uncertainty as to how the land would develop and what effect that development would have on the river.
"To me that's too intense," said commission member Diane Chemlik. "If we rezone it to that particular category, they could put anything there. Therefore, for that part of this application, there's no way I could recommend council approve that."
The other half of the commission cited property owners' rights.
"They want to rezone it," commission member Robert Stemmler said. "... They've given a lot of public statements saying they would not do anything to sabotage the headwaters. I think at some point, you have to take a man's word for it."
Commission member Ron Petit said controls on stormwater runoff and county building codes would prevent damaging development.
Robert Graves has said he doesn't know what would be built if the request is approved, but the family wants its options open.
Jim Scheider, attorney for the Graves, said the family is willing to seek alternative solutions with entities like the Beaufort County Open Land Trust and the county's Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program, which strive to preserve environmentally sensitive land from development through purchases and conservation easements.
"Everybody is asking for certainty to know the river is protected," Scheider said. "Let me assure you, we have initiated discussion with the Open Land Trust on more than one occasion, and they essentially said they would wait until they had some action from the county."
He said the Graves would continue those discussions with the land trust while they wait for the request to go to the County Council.
County staff has recommended against the rezoning, citing concerns about the Okatie River and more traffic on U.S. 278. It also said the request doesn't comply with the county's comprehensive land-use plan.
The commission's stalemate Monday marks the second county body within a month to fail to reach a decision on the Graves' request.
The Southern Beaufort County Subcommittee passed on the request to the Planning Commission without recommendation last month after its members also deadlocked on the same issues.
Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/eyeonbeaufortco