Going out for a meal in Old Town Bluffton could soon require less driving around in search of a parking space.
Bluffton Town Council approved Tuesday a set of changes to design standards aimed at reducing the Old Town parking crunch chiefly by increasing the number of parking spaces required at future restaurant and lodging establishments built in the historic district.
Tuesday’s decision was unanimous and came without any discussion from the council or public.
But last month when the changes were granted preliminary approval, Bluffton Town Councilman Dan Wood remarked that “if we have empty parking lots, we’ve failed — but we have the opposite problem.”
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Councilman Larry Toomer said at that meeting that the existing parking requirement standard “is not working — you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that.”
Previously, town code required restaurants in the historic district to provide four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of building space. Following Tuesday’s decision, that requirement is now six spaces.
Changes for parking at retail shops, which are required to have two spaces for every 1,000 square feet, were not proposed.
While many agree that parking can be a challenge — particularly during peak hours around lunch and dinner times, as well as during festivals and events — Bluffton leaders must walk a fine line between adding adequate spaces and the risk of harming Old Town’s character.
Bluffton’s Old Town Master Plan, a document used to help staff and elected officials guide growth, contemplates this potential conflict.
“Old Town must have parking, but the town must handle parking in smart ways so that it does not dominate the entire environment,” according to the plan.
But, as shops, businesses and restaurants continue to sprout up around the historic district, “the need to update parking regulations in response to (growth) is evident,” town planning documents say. “(Bluffton town planning staff) recognizes that the current parking standards, specifically for restaurants, require revisions in response to recent land development challenges associated with the current parking regulations.”
Kevin Icard, Bluffton’s planning and community development manager, noted Tuesday that the town’s planning commission was not in favor of the code changes and requested more study of the need for the additional required spaces.
Tuesday’s decision is not unprecedented. Town code was amended in 2015, essentially doubling the number of spaces required for new restaurants and businesses.
While the new regulations place the burden of adding parking spaces on businesses, the town has ramped up its own efforts in recent months to provide more parking options in and around the historic district.