Get conversation going on island land program

info@islandpacket.comMarch 17, 2013 

Despite criticism, the Town of Hilton Head Island did nothing wrong this month in agreeing to buy its largest tract ever -- spending $5 million for 102 acres fronting William Hilton Parkway at Port Royal Plantation.

But it does owe the public a frank and open discussion about the future of its land-buying program. For two decades, it has been considered the community's most successful growth management tool. But community needs change over time and a discussion that began a couple of years ago about the best use of the land-buying program should be continued today.

When the subject came up in 2011, the town had spent more than $160 million to preserve some 1,200 acres. Those purchases reduced potential commercial development by 4.5 million square feet, resulted in 1,365 fewer motel rooms and 4,547 fewer homes, condos, apartments and timeshares. It addressed the universally accepted goal to reduce traffic and congestion and improve the quality of life. It also resulted in land for parks, fire stations, the county library and public access and views of the water and marsh. It helped put the Coastal Discovery Museum, the Children's Center, the Boys & Girls Club and Volunteers in Medicine Clinic into new facilities.

The value the program has provided residents -- who have continuously supported it at the ballot box -- should never be underestimated or unappreciated.

Still, some council members said in 2011 that it might be time to use new purchases to spark redevelopment on the island. The town has looked at ways cities, such as Greenville, have used land to more directly prime the economic pump by facilitating private investment. And it is using its land in the Shelter Cove and Coligny Circle areas to try to spark redevelopment.

In the Port Royal Plantation land deal, the town agreed to buy a tract that now contains 15 holes of the Planter's Row Golf Course. It is not behind the Port Royal community gates. For the near future, it is to be leased back to the seller, the Heritage Golf Group, which owns the three golf courses in Port Royal, as well as others on Hilton Head and around the nation.

Criticism of the deal came from the Port Royal Plantation Landowners Association. Association officials said they were blindsided by the town's purchase and had expected the land to be sold to a developer who promised the association $2.27 million to fix up its beach house. The association liked the developer's plans to build a shopping center and 119 middle-income and high-end apartments and cottages. That required rezoning. After months of conversations with the developer, the seller turned to the town, which had earlier made an offer on the property.

The town does not deserve the criticism. This is a fair deal between a willing seller and a willing buyer. It fits the town's long-term policy of land acquisition, which remains in place.

Mayor Drew Laughlin called it "an incredible opportunity ... a beautiful piece of property, in the heart of the island, offering a lot of potential to meet the future needs of the island. I believe that this purchase -- over time and with careful and thoughtful planning -- will prove to be the crown jewel of our properties."

But the town now focuses as much on how island property will be redeveloped as it once did on how it would be developed. That's quite an evolution from its incorporation goals 30 years ago.

How much land can the town afford to take off the tax rolls? How can the town on one hand create a new division to attract businesses and on the other hand remove the potential for development on prime property? We understand that the economic development goal is diversification, not more of the same. But does the town have enough flexibility in what it can do with the land it owns?

The conversation on the best use of the land-acquisition program needs to continue.

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