College prof pitches Old Town Bluffton inn

gmartin@islandpacket.comJuly 11, 2012 

Tentative plans for a 12-room inn in Old Town Bluffton were presented to the town's Historic Preservation Commission Wednesday evening, where they were met with suggestions for improvements -- and outright concerns.

Bluffton resident Sean Barth, a professor of hospitality studies at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, has yet to purchase the property at 24 Heyward Street, but presented the commission with a computer-generated aerial view of his vision.

Current plans call for 25 parking spaces and five structures on the lot -- which is now mostly vacant and zoned for mixed-use development. Two of the structures would contain five adjacent rooms each.

Some commission members were skeptical of that element's feasibility, citing reservations about its appearance.

"There's concern there, when you look at that, with how that fits into the building codes that we allow," said Sean Leininger, Bluffton's principal planner.

Commission member James Brown was more frank.

"My first impression is that it has a very motel feel to it," he said.

The council urged Barth to redesign the structures to allow for standalone, cottage-style lodging. He promised to examine the efficacy of the request, adding he had reservations about whether such spacing might prevent him from having a cost-effective number of rooms.

Barth envisions working with local artists to display their work in each room. The art would be available for purchase, he said.

He would operate the property with his fiancee and a small staff, he said, and maintain focus on sustainability, including such features as a cistern to collect rainwater for its garden. He would not seek public funding for the project.

Commission member Amanda Burr shared concerns that wedding receptions -- one of Barth's proposed uses for a larger carriage house he hopes to build -- could pose a disturbance to the surrounding neighborhood.

Don Hurst, who lives on an adjoining property, said construction could require a number of "specimen" oak trees to be cut down, and that the nature of the inn wasn't what he had hoped.

"I'd been told this would be like a bed and breakfast. This is not a bed and breakfast. It's a motel, and I definitely don't want a motel in my backyard."

The property, which Barth anticipates purchasing in the coming weeks, extends south of the Bluffton Jewel Box to Verdier Cove.

Before the meeting, Cheryl Williams -- who lives on another adjacent property, told a reporter the property had been in her family for generations, most recently belonging to her aunt, who died two years ago.

She said the land had been for sale for about a year.

"We're still trying to sell it," she said, her eyes glancing over its knee-high weeds and dangling vines. "It's a great piece of property."

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