A plan to redevelop the Hilton Head National Golf Club in greater Bluffton is moving briskly through Beaufort County’s regulatory process, but one member of the Beaufort County Council wants to slow down and make sure the massive project is done right.
Councilman Tabor Vaux was the sole member of the county’s Natural Resources Committee to vote against a zoning change earlier this week that would pave the way for the owners of the failing golf course to transform the 300-acre property at the corner of Bluffton Parkway and Malphrus Road.
The development, which is in a preliminary conceptual phase, could include the construction of 400,000 square feet of retail space, 500 hotel rooms, 300 apartments, 200 single-family homes, 400 assisted-living units, a 100,000-square-foot convention center, and a 1,500-seat performing arts center.
The massive project would also require significant infrastructure improvements such as a new public school, a fire and police substation, and major expansions to the transportation network, county documents show.
County planning director Tony Criscitello estimates that infrastructure work could cost around $12.6 million.
Rather than approve the zoning change — which would give the property owners a relatively wide array of options for developing the land — Vaux wants county leaders to form a subcommittee that would negotiate a development agreement with property owner Scratch Golf LLC.
If this project is not done right, and (the developer) is not held to a very high standard, it could ruin the Bluffton area.
Beaufort County Councilman Tabor Vaux
Such an agreement could put more restrictions on how many homes and businesses could be squeezed onto the property, as well as require the developer to include things such as additional public open space or affordable housing units.
However, development negotiations have not always gone smoothly.
Earlier this year, negotiations between a County Council subcommittee and the owner of an Okatie property called Pepper Hall collapsed when the parties could not find common ground.
“The last time we put a development subcommittee together, it took us forever” to work through the process, Councilman Steve Fobes said. “I don’t think that’s the way to do it” in the case of Hilton Head National.
Still, Vaux said “there are too many questions that remain on the table for a project of this magnitude” not to attempt to draft a development agreement.
“I think the density is too high,” he said. “I also think we are missing what would be a great opportunity to enforce some stronger stormwater standards, which I think could be done during the development agreement negotiations.”
Once completely built out, the development would represent “such a major, major change not only for this parcel (of land) but for this whole part of Beaufort County,” Vaux said. “... If this project is not done right, and (the developer) is not held to a very high standard, it could ruin the Bluffton area.”
Vaux isn’t the only one with concerns about the project.
As of Wednesday, more than 500 people had signed an online petition called “Stop The Hilton Head National Project!”
The zoning request squeaked by with a positive recommendation from the Beaufort County Planning Commission earlier this month with a 5-3 vote.
That recommendation — which was made despite a host of nearby homeowners speaking out publicly against the project — came after the board delayed a vote in September to give the property owner an opportunity to work with county staff to address concerns and scale back some aspects of the project.
Martin Kent, president of Scratch Golf LLC’s parent firm The United Company, said earlier this week that “we knew we would take some punches in our direction,” but the company is dedicated to working with county staff and residents of neighboring communities to mitigate any negative impacts.
Kent asked the Natural Resources Committee to oppose Vaux’s request to negotiate a development agreement — which committee members did — but said the developers won’t use a zoning change as “a blank check” to build whatever they want.
Council Brian Flewelling said earlier this week that “every time we rezone a property, we are taking a risk.”
But, “this area is ripe for some development” and zoning requested by the property owner is appropriate, he said.
Even though he supported the zone change, Flewelling said county leaders will be keeping a close eye on the project as it moves forward.
If the property owner “tries to go beyond (the level of development allowed by county code), there will be lawsuits,” he said. “... I want it on the record that (the owner) has been warned: Be nice neighbors.”
The full County Council will weigh in on zoning change request next month, and Vaux has said he likely will reintroduce the idea of negotiating a development agreement at that time.
“I think other people will come over to my side as they learn more,” he said Wednesday. “I’m not giving up the fight.”