Beaufort County leaders denied a plan to allow commercial and residential development on the much-debated Pepper Hall property Monday, possibly setting the stage for a legal battle with property owner Robert Graves.
"We're a little bit stunned," Graves said Monday. "We thought they'd had time to look at this and come back to it objectively and creatively, but that's obviously not what happened."
Graves' plan called for zoning 65 acres of the property that sits along U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton for commercial development and zoning 48 acres in the rear of the property for up to 480 residential units. The plan was endorsed by the county's Planning Commission in March 2013.
But members of the county's Natural Resources Committee, at the recommendation of county staff, shot down the plan Monday, citing concerns about the negative effect on the water quality of the Okatie River and disruptions to traffic patterns on U.S. 278.
Only committee member Steve Fobes supported the proposal. Councilman Bill McBride abstained, and Tabor Vaux recused himself because he works for the same law firm as Graves' attorney.
"Essentially, they're telling Mr. Graves that he has to do what they want with the property," said Bluffton attorney Jim Scheider, who represents Graves. "They won't buy it, but they won't let him develop it. It's an issue of fairness."
Graves has tried repeatedly in the past 15 years to sell or develop the 113-acre property.
Most recently, a divided County Council scuttled a plan to purchase 84 acres of the property for $11.5 million in June. The vote ended a months-long debate about whether the county should buy the tract and use it in part to bring in new businesses.
The decision led to the end of the council's 18-month option to purchase to the property, during which the county had set aside Graves' request to rezone the area to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, county administrators have said.
The council's Natural Resources Committee reconsidered that application on Monday for the first time since 2013.
Scheider and Graves have unsuccessfully argued that traffic concerns are no longer an issue because several developments once approved along U.S. 278 are no longer coming to fruition, including Willow Run across from Eagle's Pointe Golf Club, and a commercial center at the corner of Buckwalter Parkway.
They also argue that neighboring commercial uses and car dealerships suggest the property is well-suited for development. The county's future land-use plan suggests the front 20 to 25 acres of the tract could eventually support light, suburban commercial uses, said county planning director Tony Criscitiello.
"I don't believe this will be vacant land forever," said committee chairman Brian Flewelling, who opposed the rezoning. "I think this is a piece of property that will eventually get developed in some way ... but I think (Graves' proposed plan) is unrealistic now."
Earlier this year, Scheider and Graves pledged to challenge any rezoning denial in court.
But Graves stopped short of promising that again Monday.
"I'll get back with the lawyers, and we'll see what we want to do," Graves said. "What are your options? Your hands are tied. They've singled me out, and they're shooting me down with this."
- County leaders say 'no' to Pepper Hall purchase , June 8, 2015
- Tick tock: Divided County Council inching toward deadline on Pepper Hall purchase without decision , May 11, 2014
- Deadlocked county leaders postpone vote on Pepper Hall purchase , April 27, 2015
- Beaufort County Council moving forward on Pepperhall purchase , April 13, 2015
- Economic development, conservation both play into possible Pepper Hall purchase , Dec. 15, 2014