When it comes to vision for Beaufort's future, it's important to pay attention and speak up

There was a lot to take away from Historic Beaufort Foundation's 47th annual meeting, with the main message being that it is incumbent on us to be good stewards of our neighborhoods, ensuring that they reflect what our community wants and not someone else's vision. In other words, pay attention and speak up.

Guest speaker Cynthia Jenkins, a former Historic Beaufort Foundation executive director and author of the baseline study of "Historic Resources of the Lowcountry," reminded us all of the architectural and natural treasure that is Beaufort. By using historical insurance maps, she illustrated blocks in the historic district that now stand empty that once were filled with shops and homes. She explained how Beaufort's building development was keyed to the climate and to its location on the water. She noted that though Beaufort, Savannah and Charleston all developed at the same time as port/resort cities, Beaufort was laid out very differently. It was less dense.

The city of Beaufort has decided to change its zoning laws to make the building process easier for developers and property owners. It wants to make neighborhoods and commercial areas outside the historic district more walkable. It wants to add businesses and homes to empty lots and blocks to raise the tax base. It wants more rooftops to increase density.

In her presentation, Jenkins laid out these facts and asked some questions.

She said these zoning concepts, which were developed in the 1970s, contributed to the development of Seaside, Fla., and Celebration, Fla., and many other planned communities, such as Beaufort's Newpoint and Habersham. They are aimed at creating walkable neighborhoods, stopping sprawl and reducing dependence on automobiles. They achieve these goals by creating greater density.

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement among planners, architects, city administrators and landscape architects about how our cities and towns should look and function in the future. Fads come and go in planning, just as in everything else. There is not a single answer of what works best because each place needs to retain its identity. Will this new zoning code ensure that Beaufort retains its sense of place, a semi-rural oasis between the denser cities of Savannah and Charleston?

The history of building in Beaufort has evolved over 300 years. The crossroads Beaufort faces now is how to continue to be a viable, economically balanced small town while preserving the characteristics that brought so many of us here. Infill development is necessary, but it must be done appropriately and in harmony with the height, scale and mass of the city.

Recently, the city released the final sections of the civic master plan, which was produced for the redevelopment commission to use as a vision for future development. It is not law but provides the concepts for the new zoning laws. Both the master plan and the form-based code would bring big changes to the city. Much of what is proposed is untested in a city with Beaufort's nationally recognized architectural importance.

The coming months will be important in determining what Beaufort will look like in 20 years and beyond. We are told we shouldn't worry about conceptual images in the master plan that show large-scale buildings in the Beaufort Downtown Marina parking lot, a completely built-up Whitehall Plantation across the river from downtown, scores of buildings in the post office block and tightly packed homes buffering the view of a new parking garage on Port Republic Street.

Yet, it's said a picture is worth a thousand words, and these pictures portray a drastically different Beaufort from the one we now know.

Beaufort is at a crossroads, and it is up to us as residents of this remarkable place to study what is being proposed, attend the meetings and determine whether it is the best possible direction for Beaufort as it moves through its fourth century. An authentic Beaufort is so much more significant and precious than a contrived copy.

Jenkins left us with this thought: "It is Beaufort's scale, its sense of place, the architectural character and patina of age that other communities want most. We all have a great responsibility over the coming months that cannot be accomplished without the commitment of everyone in the city focusing on the authentic Beaufort."

Maxine Lutz is the executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.