County code overhaul could leave Bluffton panel with more review power

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Beaufort County and the town of Bluffton have shared one board to review architectural designs for development along some of the town's busiest roads.

But that partnership could soon end, and its dissolution would expand the powers of a town panel that might not be qualified for the job, according to the shared board's chairman.

A proposed change to county code would dissolve the Southern Corridor Review Board. The seven-member board evaluates plans for architecture, landscaping and lighting along southern Beaufort County's major roads, including parts of U.S. 278, S.C. 46 and Buckwalter Parkway in Bluffton.

In its place, Beaufort County Council members plan to install a new architectural review board to oversee all of unincorporated Beaufort County -- but not Bluffton.

"The town wishes not to engage with the county in the architectural review board," county planner Tony Criscitiello said Tuesday.

Beaufort County Councilman Brian Flewelling, who chairs the board overseeing the changes to county code, said the town has been frustrated with some of the corridor review board's decisions. That frustration could have contributed to the town's decision to consider a break from the county, he said.

"They're still on that level where things are adversarial, and ultimately, you've got to get over that for the plan to be successful for everybody," he said.

Bluffton town planner Shawn Leininger said the town's decision was a consequence of the county's decision to eliminate the Southern Corridor Review Board, not the other way around.

"In consideration of (the county dissolving the board) and in order to ensure the timely and efficient review of town applications, Town Council directed town staff to transfer the review authority of (the board) to the Planning Commission," Leininger wrote in an email.

Attempts Tuesday to reach Mayor Lisa Sulka were unsuccessful.

Beaufort County Council and Bluffton Town Council each appoint one architect, one landscape architect and one citizen to the corridor review board. The Hilton Head Island Town Council also appoints one citizen representative.

There is also a Northern Corridor Review Board that functions similarly in northern Beaufort County. It, too, would be absorbed into the single county board.

Beaufort County staff members are still revising development code, and it could be several months before County Council approves changes, which include dissolving both review boards and creating the countywide architectural review panel.

If the review board is discontinued, Bluffton's plans to fold its power into the Planning Commission would broaden the commission's authority to decide what buildings look like along major Bluffton roads.

Such decisions are integral to the town's future aesthetic, said Joseph Hall, an architect in Bluffton and current Southern Corridor Review Board chairman.

Hall said he fears the town commission's lack of architectural experience could hamper its decision-making when faced with building proposals from developers.

"These presentations ... only exist in documents," Hall said. "Many people are not trained and don't know the implications of those documents. ... They don't know the aspects of what goes up until it goes up and they say, 'Oh, my God.'"

Josh Tiller, vice chairman of the Planning Commission and a landscape architect, agreed there might not be enough architectural expertise on the commission. No member is a practicing architect.

"In the future it might help to have an architect on the commission," he said. "These projects are going to be presented by architects, and people on the commission need to speak their language."

He said the town Planning Commission will discuss the matter at its 6 p.m. meeting Wednesday at Town Hall, 20 Bridge St.

Tiller's greater concern is continuity. If the county oversees some projects on U.S. 278 and the town others, the look and feel of the buildings could get out of whack.

Hall said the best way to solve that is to stick to the town's ordinance.

"Sometimes ego creeps in and somebody says, 'I like this or I don't like that,'" he said "It's not what you like or don't like, it's what's in the ordinance."

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