Beaufort County Council bears a heavy burden Monday as it takes up a controversial rezoning request for the burgeoning Bluffton area.
That’s because of the scope of changes sought for the 300-acre tract on the Bluffton Parkway behind Lowe’s. The area is already congested, and the rezoning would enable the Hilton Head National Golf Club site to be converted into a virtual town of 400,000 square feet of retail space, 500 hotel rooms, 300 apartments, 300 single-family homes, an “adventure park” with 650 parking spaces, a 100,000-square-foot convention center, a 1,500-seat performing arts center, 400 beds of assisted living, 125,000 square feet of office space, and two schools to accommodate 1,200 students.
The zoning change is to be considered on the first of three readings at the County Council meeting beginning at 6 p.m. in the county administration building, 100 Ribaut Road, Beaufort.
On the surface, the proposal would appear to be simply too much. But after some three years in the making, the rezoning has been approved by the county Planning Commission and a County Council committee for a simple reason. It is legal. It fits within the parameters of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the county’s Community Development Code that guides land uses, and the Southern Beaufort County Regional Plan.
The Comprehensive Plan is a county ordinance, based on ideas aired every 10 years with ample opportunities for public input. The current plan recognizes that the area in question is no longer rural. That’s why the new zoning was sought, and why county law enables it. But a similar request was turned down by the Planning Commission in 2013. County Council could vote it down this time, but it would have to defend how it could do that if the applicant has adhered to its growth-control and environmental ordinances, which the county staff says it has done.
A couple of questions larger than the yes/no vote are:
▪ How did we get to this point? How can such high density development be approved in an area with roads already congested, in a Lowcountry already losing its special flavor? The answer may well be that property rights trump the wishes of the laymen and neighbors. But the question has to be addressed in a larger purview than a single rezoning request.
▪ Isn’t there something in between these two polar opposites of land use that could be more palatable for all? Just because something is legally possible does not mean it must or should be done. How do we get there?
The Beaufort County planning staff laid out conditions on its original recommendation of rezoning approval. They could help the county find that middle ground. It is important that, at the very least, these conditions be adopted and enforced.
Staff recommended that a development agreement be formulated and executed concurrently with the rezoning approval.
Staff has the concerns we all do, starting with traffic problems. A stunning $12.6 million in off-property improvements would be needed, the county said. And estimates like this are often a low starting figure and much more could easily be needed. It will fall to the developer to pay that, with or without a development agreement, the county says. But the county staff wanted a development agreement to mandate the timing and other details of transportation improvements both inside and outside the tract, as well as hammering out specifics on the schools and a new entrance to an established neighborhood across the street.
On Friday, the town of Bluffton sent a letter to the county outlining some of its concerns. Previously, Bluffton had checked off on plans shared with it by the county. But now it points to concerns about stormwater runoff and the transportation problem.
“The traffic impact analysis does not clearly identify mitigation for the impacts,” the town wrote. “Careful consideration should be made to mitigate traffic impacts to the Bluffton Parkway and the access to the Heritage Lakes residential development. The proposed mitigations and improvements should be addressed in details specified in a development agreement.”
Beaufort County Council bears a heavy burden to protect the general public and overall quality of life, while at the same time guaranteeing legal rights to the property owner.