Horry County leaders on Thursday began the process of undoing a nearly century-old building restriction for dozens of acres along the Intracoastal Waterway, paving the way for developers to soon build 400 new homes there.
The restriction is what’s known as a “spoil easement,” which dates back to when the Intracoastal Waterway was constructed, and meant that either the federal or county government retained the right to dump material dredged from the waterway — or, spoil — on the land and restrict the landowners from building on it.
With the county now undoing that restriction on a 57-acre parcel of land along the Intracoastal Waterway, it opens up the potential for the landowner to develop the property, which totals 174 acres. Horry County Planning Director David Jordan said Thursday the landowners were seeking to build around 400 single-family homes. The land, according to county property records, is owned by the family of John Russ via the companies JDR Square, LLC, Hague Properties, LLC, Great Grapes, LLC as well as Carolyn Hills via the company CJ4, LLC.
The property borders the Myrtle Beach Safari zoo, operated by Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who was featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King” series.
Jordan noted that the developers are likely to include an adjacent 17-acre property in a future development, making the property total nearly 200 acres. That additional property would give the housing development access to S.C. 707, and Jordan said it’s likely the developers would eventually build a second connection between Folly Road and the highway.
Russ and Hills, though, did not return phone messages seeking comment about their plans for the property.
Only a small portion of the property appears subject to flooding from the Intracoastal Waterway, according to county flood maps.
Due to the nature of the spoil easement agreement and a rezoning request that was completed in early 2017, there’s little that county leaders can do to prevent the additional development along the Waterway.
“That’s a huge piece of land and when that gets released you know exactly what they’re going to want to do, and that’s a very congested area,” Horry County Council member Bill Howard said Thursday. “Not that we can hold it up, I’m just saying they’re going to want to develop it immediately I’m sure.”
How the major development will come to be dates back nearly a century, and is thanks in large part to how the federal government built the Intracoastal Waterway.
When Horry County’s portion of the waterway was dug beginning in the 1930s, crews needed a place to put the dirt. The federal government ultimately designated portions along each bank of the Waterway as dirt-dumping areas. Though the land could be owned by individuals, building was restricted under spoil easements.
Those spoil easement areas remained in tact for decades, as the waterway was periodically dredged and crews continued to dump the dredged materials. Barges with backhoes on board would float down the waterway, scooping dirt and placing it on the spoil easement zones. Today, some of those former zones contain some of the most valuable property in the county.
By the 1950s and 1960s, dredging techniques began to change, and the federal government began to not need large tracts of land for dumping dredged materials. Rather than the barge-and-backhoe method, dredgers could use long hoses and pump dirt from the bottom of the Waterway to a designated area. A similar method is used for beach renourishment, in which tons of sand are pumped from the ocean floor to the shore. The county’s bike park, The Hulk, was formerly one such area.
In the 1980s, Horry County, South Carolina and the federal government all signed a joint agreement where the federal government agreed to give the former spoil easement tracts to the county in exchange for the county building the new basins where dredged material could be disposed. Such basins were considered more environmentally friendly than the former “spoil easement” areas, Jordan said.
At the same time, the county set up a procedure for people who owned the land controlled by the spoil easements to get rid of those easements, allowing them to build on their land.
“Once the spoil basin was constructed for a given area, the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) would release the spoil easement in that area to the county, and the county could then release the spoil easements to the individual land owners in order to allow development of those properties,” county attorney H. Randolph Haldi wrote in a memo.
Not all landowners immediately took advantage of that procedure, though, and some spoil easements still exist along the Waterway.
“(With) this particular property, that procedure was never followed and no one had requested it til now,” Haldi explained to county council members Thursday.
At Thursday’s meeting, Howard questioned whether the county had any leverage to control what developers could build on the property. Jordan, though, explained that because the county already approved a rezoning of the land in 2017, the county had very little leverage.
Jordan noted that original development plans called for 1,500 apartments, but that builders had since scaled that down to around 400 single family homes with a small number of townhomes. Howard predicted that the property would be developed sooner than later.
“They can come get a building permit as soon as we do this and start building and we can’t...stop them,” he said. “It’s going to be something, it’s a huge piece of land.