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As Bluffton’s population grows, excitement, caution move in along with new residents

How has Beaufort County grown since 2015?

How has our population changed since 2015? We took a look at the census data to find out.
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How has our population changed since 2015? We took a look at the census data to find out.

The Bluffton State of Mind — or at least the number of people living it — is getting bigger.

The town has emerged as one of the state’s fastest growing municipalities, according to recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The town added nearly 2,000 residents last year, bringing the total population to 18,897, the data said.

Bluffton grew more than 11.5 percent from 2015 to 2016, and almost 51 percent since 2010.

Greenville was deemed the country’s fourth fastest growing city with a population of more than 50,000.

But census estimates show Bluffton added new residents at roughly double Greenville’s 2016 growth rate of 5.8 percent.

The rate of the town’s growth offers both opportunities and challenges, local leaders say.

“We are very conscientious of the growth, and we are trying to be responsible in managing it,” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said Thursday. “It’s good thing to be growing, but its also a scary thing when you look 20 years in the future.”

Beaufort County Councilman Tabor Vaux, who represents a district that contains a large swath of the town, said he expects the population to continue to rise at similar rates in coming years and stressed the importance of “smart growth.”

“The town and the county are going to sit down and talk about comprehensive planning” in regard to issues such as infrastructure, environmental protection and overcrowding, he said.

Bluffton Town Councilman Dan Wood echoed much of this sentiment.

“Growth must be managed to ensure it doesn’t impact our quality of life — which is why so many people want to live here in the first place,” he said.

Wood stressed the importance of finding ways to improve the town’s stock of affordable and workforce housing.

“For a community to thrive and survive, you have to have an adequate number of multifamily housing units,” he said.

Without more affordable apartment communities to accommodate the new folks flocking to Bluffton each year, the town runs the risk of pricing young professionals and service industry employees out of the housing market, he said.

“If you keep the young people here, you’ll keep the energy of the town alive and thriving,” he said.

Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Shellie West said Thursday new businesses are sprouting up in and around Bluffton virtually every day.

But many of those businesses — particularly service-based companies — struggle to stay fully staffed, she said, citing housing as a major factor.

“We are in an upswing right now, so the rental market is very tight in terms of occupancy, and rental rates are very high,” she said. “Business are struggling to get entry-level workers.”

As Bluffton’s population has grown, so has the scrutiny placed by local government on developers. That was exemplified recently by Beaufort County Council’s decision not to grant a zoning change that could have paved the way for a massive new residential, commercial, recreation and entertainment development at the Hilton Head National Golf Club just outside Bluffton town limits.

Other fast-growing South Carolina municipalities similar in size to Bluffton include Conway, Fort Mill, Moncks Corner and Hanahan, census data shows.

Several of South Carolina’s larger cities grew last year, but at a much slower rate.

In fact, Bluffton added more new residents than Charleston, which had a growth rate of less than 1.5 percent.

Despite that slower growth, Charleston overtook Columbia as South Carolina’s largest city, sporting a population estimate of 134,385, census data shows.

Columbia — population 134,309 — grew at a rate of only .25 percent last year.

Beaufort added an estimated 125 residents in 2016, a roughly 1 percent increase, census data shows

While the South Carolina’s total state population grew 1.35 percent last year to just under 5 million, there are some municipalities that shrunk.

Census estimates show Hilton Head Island lost 6 residents last year. The town’s total population was estimated at 40,500.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton-Beaufort metropolitan area, which includes all of Beaufort County and portions of nearby Jasper County, grew by just under 2 percent last year, to a total population of 211,614 residents.

Since 2010, growth in the region is up more than 13 percent.

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