Bluffton officials urge Beaufort County to delay vote on shopping center

dburley@islandpacket.comApril 24, 2014 

STAFF GRAPHIC

Bluffton officials have urged Beaufort County Council to delay a vote on plans to build a large shopping center at the corner of U.S. 278 and S.C. 46, saying the project could set precedents that threaten area waterways.

The county is considering a proposal by Jaz Development LLC to put two large retailers on the densely wooded, 66-acre site, which is outside of town limits. The land was the former site of a printing company, and the soil there is contaminated. The center would be called Bluffton Gateway.

In a letter to County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville, Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said approving the project could have "unintended impacts for the sensitive waterways in the greater Bluffton region."

Some aspects of the plan "set us back over 15 years in our combined efforts to protect our waterways," she wrote.

Despite those concerns, the town has recently gauged developer interest in being annexed into Bluffton, according to two emails given to county administrator Gary Kubic by a Jaz attorney on Thursday.

As recently as April 1, town officials emailed Jaz owner David Oliver to tout the town's commercial advantages, according to the documents.

Town staff said Thursday that is standard practice and does not contradict its position on stormwater pollution.

"We would stick to strict standards if they were there or in the heart of Bluffton," Sulka said. "More people will come to our town if they know we do it right."

'BLUFFTON GATEWAY' DEVELOPMENT

The Atlanta-based developer has agreed to clear out contaminated soil at the site.

Oliver, who lives part time in Sea Pines, declined Thursday to name the two tenants that would occupy the land. The project is estimated to cost $50 million, he said.

Sulka and other local officials worry the plans have too many paved and hard surfaces that will increase runoff into the Colleton River.

Jaz has asked the county to allow more than the recommended 10 percent of these surfaces. Plans show 14.5 percent, according to county stormwater manager Eric Larson.

Larson said the plan meets the county's stormwater requirements. That's possible because the developer will employ devices to minimize runoff, such as rain gardens, retention and detention ponds, and pavement that traps runoff for re-use, he said.

The developer also has argued the amount of runoff after construction will be less than what is produced on the site now.

Sulka and other officials, including County Councilman Tabor Vaux, insist the project should meet the 10 percent recommendation. They fear the exception could set a bad precedent for future developments, Sulka said.

"There's a lot of science behind the 10 percent," Vaux said Thursday. "It's not something someone came up with one weekend."

At a county Natural Resources Committee meeting Thursday, Vaux urged the developer to reduce the surfaces to 10 percent.

Larson said adding more features to achieve the number would "not provide much more benefit for the price." Using data provided by Jaz, he said it would cost about $800,000 more to achieve the 10 percent goal.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

At the meeting, Jaz attorney Walter Nester showed Kubic the two emails from Bluffton town manager Anthony Barrett and assistant town manager Marc Orlando.

In a July 10, 2012, email, Barrett listed several commercial advantages Oliver would receive if his property were annexed. They included ease of permitting, planning help and access to "elected/appointed officials who desire commercial growth."

In an April 1, 2014, email about signage for the shopping center, Orlando told Oliver he "would like to continue our discussion about annexation and town of Bluffton benefits."

Attempts Thursday to reach Orlando were unsuccessful. Sulka said he was vacationing in Canada.

Barrett said Thursday his email did not contradict the town's position on managing pollution.

He said it would be difficult for Jaz to get approval for its stormwater plan in Bluffton, since the town is heavily focused on protecting its waterways.

The town has more stringent requirements than the county, according to town stormwater manager Kim Jones.

Sulka said it's normal for town staff to reach out to developers, especially if they are "right next door."

She added that Sommerville approached her in 2012 to ask if the town was interested in Jaz.

Oliver, the developer, said he had no plans to "sweep the rug out from Beaufort County" by passing out the emails.

Beaufort County officials "had asked if we had ever talked to Bluffton about annexation," he said. Oliver said he had no plans to pursue annexation, but "it makes you think, right?"

Kubic had no comment on the emails.

"They speak for themselves," he said.

WHAT'S NEXT

County Council gave preliminary approval to the Jaz project April 14 on a 6-to-5 vote.

The panel has scheduled a final vote May 12.

Councilman Brian Flewelling said he will recommend the county delay the vote.

A clerical error did not attach the most updated development agreement to county documents shown during the April 14 meeting, so the council voted on an outdated plan, he said.

"Some people will say this is a major issue; others will call it a minor flaw," he said.

Sommerville will decide whether the vote will be delayed, Flewelling said.

Attempts Thursday to reach Sommerville were unsuccessful.

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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