For Conway, annexing part of fast-growing Carolina Forest begins with this step

By Charles D. Perry, The Post & Courier

CONWAY — When Horry County leaders rejected plans for a shopping and townhome complex in Carolina Forest last fall, they cautioned neighbors that the vote wouldn’t stop the project from being built.

If anything, they said, it might simply delay things until Conway could annex the property; then the city would welcome the more than 1,100 homes and shops proposed for that land.

Nearly three months later, those statements sound prescient. 

Conway City Council will soon decide whether to annex nearly 12 acres along U.S. Highway 501 just east of Gardner Lacy Road. The landowner has submitted an annexation request, though city officials said it’s one of six Carolina Forest properties they would need to annex to reach the site of the proposed retail, dining and townhome complex.

Still, they’re calling this move the first domino.

“We’ve been preparing for it for a long time,” City Administrator Adam Emrick said. “We really are poised for being able to handle this growth.”

Under state law, there are three ways a municipality can annex private property. The simplest method involves all the landowners of the target area presenting the city with a petition requesting annexation. If the city council agrees to take in the properties, the land is incorporated into the city limits.

But state law also requires that the properties being annexed border the city. Right now, the Conway city limits along U.S. Highway 501 stop at Gardner Lacy Road.

Emrick confirmed city officials have been in talks with other property owners in that area about annexation, but they’ve only received one formal request so far.

For Conway, there’s a financial benefit to annexing property in this section of Carolina Forest, especially with the type of development that’s been proposed for the area between Postal Way and U.S. Highway 501.

The owners of businesses, second homes and rental properties pay higher property taxes in South Carolina. An owner-occupied home is taxed at 4 percent of its estimated value, while a second home is taxed at 6 percent, as is commercial property.

Owner-occupied homes also don’t pay property taxes for school operations. The same isn’t true for commercial properties, including apartments and second homes.

Additionally, restaurants bring in hospitality fees.

Conway already provides water service along U.S. Highway 501 to the Kroger shopping center at Carolina Forest Boulevard, and Emrick expects the city’s borders will eventually expand to include those Carolina Forest commercial properties in the water service district.

But the prospect of additional development coming to the Postal Way area, particularly inside the city limits, is concerning to some neighbors. They know Conway is primarily interested in the commercial property, not their homes, but they worry about not having a voice in the city’s development decisions despite being impacted by them.

“I’m disappointed with this annexation, but we have seen it coming,” said Carole vanSickler, a community advocate who lives in nearby Waterford Plantation. “Now here it is. It’s happening.”

City officials stressed that the annexation discussion shouldn’t come as a surprise. Years ago, before Carolina Forest’s population boomed to more than 38,000, the city added public safety facilities and water towers on the east side of the Waccamaw River.

“It was something we were thinking about when we located [those facilities] there,” Emrick said, “to prepare for annexation this way.”

He also pointed out that there are already other industrial properties in that area, including the Conbraco Road manufacturing site.

“All this housing came up around industrial,” Emrick said. “It wasn’t the other way around.”

It’s unclear what will be developed on the 12 acres being considered for annexation. The property sits vacant with the exception of the signage for the Myrtle Beach National golf course.

The site has commercial zoning in the county now and it would have the same zoning in the city. But attorney Shep Guyton, who represents the annexation applicant, told the city’s planning commission on Feb. 1 that the landowner would eventually seek a zoning change before the property is developed.

“The involved pieces of that future development are more time consuming,” Guyton said. “It’s more important for us that we’re in the city so we’ll know we’re planning based on city ordinances rather than county.”

It’s obvious why some developers prefer working with the city over the county on Carolina Forest projects.

Last year, two Carolina Forest development agreements were presented to Horry County Council. One called for building 1,154 units, including townhomes, single-family houses and business space, on nearly 130 acres between Postal Way and Highway 501. The project was touted as a live-work concept similar to The Market Common on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. The other plans were for an unspecified mixed-use project.

Those agreements outlined how developers would pay for their share of additional infrastructure. The proposed improvements included widening Postal Way, adding pedestrian paths on each side of that road, setting up a new traffic light on Highway 501 and building another roundabout on Postal Way. A new frontage road would have been constructed as well.

But the potential deal sparked a backlash from nearby residents, who told council the county’s infrastructure couldn’t handle the additional traffic congestion and nearby schools were already over 125 percent capacity.

County leaders warned neighbors that the city would likely embrace these projects if the county rejected them, and the city might not require the promised infrastructure.

Yet most residents wouldn’t budge. County leaders ultimately sided with them, voting against the development agreements.

Hence the Conway discussions.

“The vocal minority’s lack of willingness to negotiate has forced us into this position and basically delayed the inevitable,” said Felix Pitts of G3 Engineering, a firm that worked with one of the developers on the Postal Way proposal the county shot down.

Thomas & Hutton’s Sean Flynn, who handled a separate Postal Way development agreement, said his clients would consider taking their Market Common-style project into the city. However, he said that won’t be possible until the city establishes a link to their target property.

Conway leaders have expressed interest in making that happen.

The city is in growth mode. Conway gained more residents than all but 10 of South Carolina’s 217 towns and cities between the 2020 Census and the summer of 2022, according to census estimates. 

Last month, the city agreed to annex more than 1,700 acres near Pitch Landing Road and U.S. Highway 701 South for a development that could bring over 3,300 homes.

And Conway officials will also soon decide whether to annex nearly 500 acres for a development off U.S. Highway 378 that could include more than 1,300 homes. 

Read more here.