In unusual move, Bluffton mayor and council deny permits for new homes. Here’s why

Town of Bluffton
Town of Bluffton — file photo

Bluffton’s rapid growth was reined in slightly on Tuesday in a move that one councilman said showed the town has no plans to “sell out” any time soon.

In a rare rebuke of its planning commission, which had already approved plans for 16 new townhouses in The Arbors section of Hampton Lake, Town Council voted 5-0 to deny permits for the project.

Ninety residents of Hampton Lake, many of whom had purchased in The Arbors thinking no new homes would be added to their neighborhood, had signed a petition asking for Town Council to step in.

In March, engineering firm Thomas & Hutton officially proposed plans on behalf of developer HL Development LLC to build eight duplexes at the top of Fording Court’s arch-shaped street. The project calls for the removal of a 45-foot tree buffer, which several area residents say is there to shield power lines. If the trees are removed, residents believe their quality of life and property values will go down.

The bigger issue, they say, is that they weren’t informed of the possible change.

In the days leading up to the vote, Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka and Councilman Dan Wood visited the property in question. After meeting with residents of The Arbors, Sulka said she realized she couldn’t support the developer over her constituents.

“We have residents that have now moved into new areas. Future developers, I don’t think, realized residents weren’t happy,” she said in a phone call Thursday with The Island Packet.

“’Arbors’ means trees,” she said, noting that Councilman Larry Toomer made a good point in Tuesday’s Town Council meeting: “The neighborhood needs a canopy.”

Rusty Windsor, a project engineer with Thomas & Hutton, declined to comment for this story as he left the council meeting Tuesday.

Several residents of The Arbors attended the meeting, with five — including a young girl — providing public comment as to why they wanted Town Council to deny the request.

One of those residents, Mike Williams, said he was “ecstatic” that the council listened to Fording Court residents.

“It make you feel included in the community,” he said in a phone call Friday. “I just moved here in December, and I love it here. It makes me feel like I’m more a part of Bluffton. I thank the Town Council for listening to us and would give them the highest grade possible for their work.”

Another Fording Court resident, Jodie Evans, said she was surprised, mostly because this kind of result in Bluffton is unprecedented.

“It’s like David comes up against Goliath,” she said. “And David doesn’t usually come up on top.”

As the town continues to face more rapid growth, Councilman Fred Hamilton said the council will have to do the best job it can to hold itself accountable to the people of Bluffton.

“These situations come up when developers try to make a profit,” he said. “But they then leave. We don’t. We’re going to give the people of Bluffton the quality of life they deserve.”

He called the council’s unanimous decision a turning point in how Bluffton will consider growth as it looks ahead, both in Bluffton and in the surrounding areas that look to Bluffton as a guide.

“We’re growing fast, and now we have to grow smart,” Hamilton continued. ”We also have to be pacesetters for the rest of our neighbors as well. I think we have to let our community know we’re not going to sell out at this point. We’re going to advocate for citizens and make sure their voices are heard.”

Evans said she, along with her fellow Fording Court residents, have always been happy living in Hampton Lake.

“It’s a beautiful neighborhood,” she said. “We just want it to stay that way.”