Bluffton council candidates talk Old Town parking, late-night noise

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 17, 2013 

An increase in noise and traffic in Old Town dominated a Bluffton Town Council candidate forum Thursday night.

Six of the seven candidates vying for two vacant seats agreed council should respond quickly to resident concerns over those issues that came with new development there.

About 40 people attended the forum at Town Hall to question incumbents Oliver Brown and Michael Raymond and challengers Fred Hamilton, Garfield Moss, Larry Toomer and Charlie Wetmore. Candidate Gary Bensch did not attend because of a business meeting scheduled in Columbia, his wife, Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch, said.

Several questioners asked the candidates to outline their strategy for balancing the historic district's laid-back aesthetic with an influx of commerce.

"This is a mixed-use community, a live-and-work community," said Hamilton. "We must find a way for them to coexist."

Hamilton praised the town's decision two weeks ago to paint no-parking zones on Calhoun Street after residents complained of drivers blocking mailboxes, fire hydrants, driveways and sidewalks. He said the town could use money from its accommodations tax to create more parking.

Moss said the town had planned for the street to be the heart of the historic district, but not subject to the late-night noise and parking overflow.

"It's a simple issue," he said. "If the residents on Calhoun and Lawrence streets knew things would be this destructive and noisy," they would never supported the new development.

The town has hired outside contractors to help find a long-term solution to parking problems on Calhoun.

Moss said the use of outside contractors is not necessary.

"We've got our own staff who we pay for that," he said. He also said the burden "should be on the businesses to prove there isn't a parking problem."

Toomer agreed that "we don't need a study to figure out there's a parking problem." He suggested the town build additional parking.

Concerning late-night noise from live music, Toomer said: "We planned for Calhoun Street to be the center of town. What we didn't want is to not be able to sleep because the music is too loud."

Toomer said he'd consider revamping the noise ordinance to limit the times live music can be played.

Wetmore said he would support a ban of amplified music after 10 p.m.

Raymond, who plays live music at night in Old Town, said studies were needed to determine the best response to noise complaints.

Brown said Town Council has not ignored the complaints of residents over the past four months.

"We're listening, and something will be done," he said.

Wetmore said the town's problems stem from its tremendous growth, "We're at a crossroads, and we need clear direction on what to do."

Wetmore also brought up development plans the town signed during the mid-2000s.

"We need to look at every single agreement to see if we need to re-negotiate," he said. "I think the town made a mistake in the past and moved too fast."

Raymond, on the other hand, argued the town's growth was a good thing and would continue, citing the availability of 19,000 residential lots.

"Guess what? People have discovered us. We are the victims of our own success," he said. "We can't wall-off Bluffton and lock the gate."

Brown agreed with Raymond and Wetmore.

He wants more businesses to move in, but thinks the town should reconsider several of its development agreements to encourage low-density, business-oriented growth, rather than additional residential growth.

"We can't continue to rely on impact fees for revenue," he said.

The election will be held Nov. 5.

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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