A Georgia developer's plan to build a large shopping center in greater Bluffton has riled some area officials who say it could threaten the nearby Colleton River by failing to meet Beaufort County's pollution-control standards.
Atlanta-based Jaz Development LLC wants to put at least one large retailer on 66 acres at the corner of U.S. 278 and S.C. 46, a densely wooded, contaminated site of a former printing company. The name of the potential tenant has not been released.
The project received preliminary approval in October from County Council and was sent to a subcommittee.
Jaz has agreed to clear out contaminated soil at the site, but some officials worry its plans will have too much paved and other hard surfaces and not enough pollution-control devices.
Hard surfaces, such as rooftops, sidewalks and parking lots, increase stormwater runoff, which can carry pollutants that reach local waterways.
The county has recommended that developers allow no more runoff from a commercial site than would be the case if 10 percent of the property were covered by impervious surfaces. Developers can actually have more than 10 percent impervious surfaces and still meet the standard by employing retention ponds and other devices that minimize runoff.
Jaz's proposal would allow runoff equivalent to a property with 20 percent impervious surfaces.
County attorney Josh Gruber said 10 percent is a goal, not a requirement -- albeit one developers have met since at least 2011.
Opponents of the Jaz plan, however, say that's unfair to other developers who met the 10 percent level at great expense.
"A concession like this would certainly draw the county's commitment to (stormwater management) into question," said Allen Ward, owner of Bluffton-based Ward-Edwards Engineering, who designed the Tanger Outlet Center 1 in greater Bluffton. He said that development and others he has worked on met the 10 percent standard.
But Walter Nester, an attorney for Jaz, argues that trying to meet the hard-surface standard would not be cost-effective. Like Gruber, he notes the 10 percent mark is a goal, not a rule, and said the development meets the county's requirements for stormwater runoff.
"We'd be asked to take additional steps and spend a million dollars-plus to achieve a goal we already meet the requirements for," Nester said.
The prime commercial location has been vacant for years.
Nester said the site's unique features make it an "extraordinarily challenging site to develop."
Soil on 5 acres of the property was contaminated by a former printing business and must be cleared out, or possibly paved over, before construction begins, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Beaufort County would match the cost of the cleanup with a tax credit after DHEC deems the area free of contaminants, Gruber said.
The site also has 16 acres of wetlands and a 250-foot utility right-of-way, Nester said.
Nester said engineers would install rain gardens, retention and detention ponds, and an irrigation lagoon to meet the county's stormwater requirements. These environmental features would control rainwater as if there was no more than 10 percent hard surface, Nester said.
However, a preliminary drainage plan for the shopping center shows 17 percent runoff, according to county stormwater management director Eric Larson. The county's proposed agreement allows 20 percent, according to county documents.
FLEXIBLE OR NOT?
County Councilman Brian Flewelling, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, which has recommended approval of the Jaz development agreement, said the county must allow some flexibility for developers dealing with challenging sites.
"Obviously, this is a peculiar property, and I don't want to be in the position of telling people no when they have the engineering to make sure the water is contained," he said.
But not everyone thinks the county should bend on the 10 percent standard.
Reed Armstrong, a former oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who works for the Beaufort-based Coastal Conservation League, said multiple studies have shown 10 percent is the tipping point.
After that, "the result will be the degradation of water quality," he said.
Ward, the Bluffton engineer, said his designs kept the Tanger Center 1 at 10 percent. He built water detention vaults underneath the parking lot, among other features.
"All of my developer clients have to meet 10 percent," he said.
Not requiring the same of Jaz "would put this site at a competitive advantage," he said.
County Councilman Tabor Vaux, who voted against the development at the committee level, said it contradicts the environmental message the county wants to send.
"It sets a dangerous precedent," he said.
Gruber, the county attorney, says the agreement is still preliminary, and the county is encouraging the developers to limit hard surfaces.
"I don't believe we would be able to sacrifice issues regarding water quality for the sake of development," he said.
Flewelling said enough questions have been raised about the 10 percent standard for more discussion.
Council council planned to have a second vote on the development Monday. Instead, council will take public comment and the panel's Development Agreement Subcommittee will discuss the proposal at its Thursday meeting at the county administration building, 100 Ribaut Road in Beaufort.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.