Contest could guide development of Bluffton-area's Graves tract

Idea's critics cite potential for conflicts of interest, question if area needs development at all

July 27, 2009 

Developments along the Okatie River.


Land around the headwaters of the Okatie River is facing development pressures that concern environmentalists, leading Bluffton officials to come up with a new way to try to reach a solution on the property's future.

The town is considering holding a contest in which local designers submit their proposals to develop the property for a prize. The goal is to come up with a proposal that could satisfy all parties involved: the developers, environmental activists and the town.

The 150 acres the town is eyeing has been in the Graves family for four generations, and one attempt by family members to develop the property and have it annexed into Bluffton has been rejected. The family plot of mostly undeveloped pastures and wetlands north of U.S. 278 and just east of S.C. 170 is also the scenic home to the Graves' cattle, bison and horses.

Town officials say the land will likely be developed, but they'd like to see it done in a way that would create a "legacy property" -- a point of interest to draw people to the area and to make residents proud.

The contest would be judged by a panel of local environmentalists, land planners and perhaps Town Council members, said Bluffton's principal planner, Milt Rhodes, in describing the competition during a council meeting last week.

The winning proposal would not necessarily be approved for development, and the competition does not ensure the currently unincorporated Beaufort County land would be annexed into the town, Rhodes said. But it would give developers an idea of what the town would consider acceptable. And it could mean a free, ready-for-approval proposal for the developer.


At least one member of the Graves family is excited about the idea of a contest.

Robert Graves, who owns about 102 acres in the area, grew up on the land. During a tour of the property Friday, he recounted childhood memories of fishing and swimming in the headwaters and riding horses on the ranch. His children and grandchildren still ride there.

Graves said he -- and at least two of his cousins who own a total of about 50 acres -- want their land considered in the competition proposals.

"We're not in agriculture anymore," Graves said. "We're surrounded by development. We can't sit on land like this and not try to put it in current times."

He said they hope to eventually build a mixed-use development, combining commercial and residential space. The equestrian facilities and docks could be opened to public use, Graves said, adding that he hopes to develop an area that would be similar to downtown Beaufort or Shelter Cove on Hilton Head Island.

"I hope they'll bring that in the proposals," he said.


Not everyone is happy about the design competition.

Officials from the Coastal Conservation League said last week that development of the Graves tract would be another blow to the Okatie headwaters. Other development plans are under way for the surrounding area, including a proposed mixed-use neighborhood with a hotel and national chain restaurant near Hampton Parkway.

"Land can be developed sustainably and properly -- it's a question of quantity," Garrett Budds, south coast office director of the Coastal Conservation League, said last week. "We don't see the logic of reaching out and annexing more land, given the economic climate and that the geographic location is a cause for concern."

Budds said a design competition could be a good way to determine how to develop land in a way that would minimize harm to the river. But tying the competition to a specific parcel could end up undercutting the town's good intentions. If council members sit on the panel that chooses a winner, they may be biased when the project comes before the council for ultimate approval, he said.

Budds said he's unsure whether Coastal Conservation League officials would accept a position on the panel. They haven't been asked officially, he said.

Friends of the Rivers founder Nancy Schilling said she would gladly serve on the panel.

"I want to see that stormwater issues are held to the highest standard possible," said Schilling, the head of the local environmental advocacy group.


The Graves family first attempted to have their property annexed into Bluffton in September. At that time, they wanted to build 705 homes on 90 acres and commercial space on 145 acres -- more than they would've been able to build under its current county zoning.

The proposal failed to move forward to the town's Negotiating Committee after a tie vote on the Town Council.

At the time, council member Charlie Wetmore, who voted against the proposal with member Oliver Brown, said he was concerned the town already was behind in providing infrastructure to other areas of town. He also opposed allowing developers to build more than would have been allowed by Beaufort County government.

Last week, Wetmore said he wanted to see all the details of the competition -- including what the prize would be -- before approving the concept. Still, he said he's enthusiastic about the idea.

The rest of the council agreed at last week's meeting.

Town staff will finalize details about the competition in the coming months before it gets final consideration from the Town Council.

Development of the land could be years away, Graves said.

"We'll plan it and when the next economy comes, we'll be ready," he said.

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