As 2018 draws to a close, reporters at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette have been digging into their notebooks and talking to local leaders to determine the biggest issues in the New Year.
This will be a year of big change, those interviewed agreed. From new county and school district leaders to the first summer of a new plastic bag ban, it’s sure to be memorable. Here’s what’s on tap in Beaufort County.
First tourist season with the plastic bag ban
Expect some griping this summer as tourists flock to the region — and learn of the new plastic bag ban. Beaufort County passed a prohibition on single-use plastic bags in 2018, which went into effect on Nov. 1.
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It has yielded mixed reactions from residents.
“The bag ban is stupid anyway,” one reader wrote to The Island Packet. “I’ve lived here over 35 years and I’ve never once seen a plastic bag in the ocean ... just something for you people to whine about,” the reader said in an email.
Many grocers have switched entirely to paper bags and encouraged shoppers to bring their own reusable tote bags.
A few superstores south of the Broad River have been criticized for replacing single-use plastic bags with thicker, “reusable” plastic bags that some shoppers have mistaken to be biodegradable.
“Plastic is plastic,” St. Helena resident Jayme Bowman said. “They’re just trying to make it look better.” She later added, “(Plastic bags) should all be banned!!! Hate that they went around it.”
As of Dec. 19, Beaufort County has issued no fines to businesses for non-compliance.
It remains to be seen if the ban leads to more respect for the environment or frustrated visitors in a tourism-dependent region.
Trees downed for safety
You’ll see even fewer trees along I-95 in Jasper County as the long-awaited tree-clearing and safety improvements project wraps up in early 2019.
The S.C. Department of Transportation is removing 99 acres of trees along a 33-mile stretch of road dubbed the “Coffin Corridor,” along with adding cable barriers, guardrails and rumble strips.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette first reported on the deadly section of interstate in 2015, revealing more tree-related deaths along the section of I-95 than in any other S.C. county.
Though the project was expected to be completed in October, Eric Hall with the S.C. DOT, said the project was pushed back to January 2019. With the heavy rain in December, there is still not a firm date for the project’s completion.
Could Hilton Head get more lighting at crosswalks?
In 2019, Hilton Head Island may face a reckoning: Will town leaders improve dark and dangerous intersections or will they stick with the status quo?
The town reeled after the May death of Charli Bobinchuck, an 11-year-old girl who was struck by a car as she and her dog, Max, were walking across U.S. 278 near Yacht Cove. The community came together to celebrate her life, and Yacht Cove residents flooded Town Hall to advocate for more lighting at the crosswalk where Charli was crossing the street.
Since then, her father, Bryan Bobinchuck, has developed a prototype crosswalk sign that lights up when pedestrians cross the street, but expressed frustration at a December Town Council meeting when he said he’s never heard back from the town committee handling the project.
The town is “exploring alternatives” for lighting crosswalks, according to town officials. They also introduced a plan for the Yacht Cove intersection that includes pavement markings and reflective tape on crossing signs, but stopped short of crosswalk lighting.
Meanwhile, the crosswalk where Charli was struck and killed remains one of the 3 most dangerous intersections on the island.
New leaders for Beaufort County
The county will embark on its third search for a permanent county administrator following the retirement of Gary Kubic in September 2017.
The New Year will also bring a shakeup to county council . Nearly a third of its membership will turn over, including former Vice Chairman Jerry Stewart. Meanwhile, current Chairman Paul Sommerville has had his leadership abilities called into question by several members over the last few months, including Mike Covert and Brian Flewelling.
Whether the new group will work together more effectively than the last council will be worth watching. Also, keep an eye out to see if Sommerville’s time as chairman of council comes to an end, as it could mean a new tone set by whomever takes his place.
Choosing a new superintendent
When the new school board members start their term in January, they will choose new superintendent for the Beaufort County School District.
Berg has stated from the beginning that he is not interested in extending his term but is focused on helping the school board find the best candidate.
In early December, the search firm hired by the district hosted six public forums and sent out an online survey to gather input from parents, teachers and community members about what characteristics they wanted in candidates.
The board plans to identify finalists by late March and announce its choice for a permanent superintendent by mid-April 2019.
Easing crowding at Bluffton schools
After four months of considering a new rezoning plan for schools, the Beaufort County school board still has not reached a decision.
So it’s still undecided if Bluffton students will be rezoned next year in order to help address overcrowding or if the district will decide to add more portable classrooms at the schools.
The most recent rezoning plan proposed by district staff would force about 750 students to change schools starting next year and add 54 mobiles classrooms at four Bluffton schools over the next three years.
In April 2018, Beaufort County residents voted against a referendum for the second time in 18 months, denying the school district millions of dollars, most of which was to be used to build and expand existing schools in Bluffton.
In a crunch to fund projects that would alleviate school overcrowding in Bluffton, district officials have said that another referendum could be placed on the ballot as early as November 2019.
New homes in Port Royal, stopping Beaufort’s flooding
In Port Royal, residents and town officials will likely continue to face off with developers of a major project.
Developers are moving forward with plans to transform a prime waterfront property that was previously a marine terminal. New homes are planned on the marsh, not far from Sands Beach. And a high-end neighborhood on the northern end of the property would include 70 to 80 homes and a community dock.
The redevelopment project is eventually expected to include waterfront condominiums and at least one new restaurant to join the recently opened Fishcamp on 11th Street.
Meanwhile, northern Beaufort County officials will be asked to adopt a comprehensive plan to manage growth on Lady’s island, assisted by $30 million in extra sales tax money approved by voters for road projects on the island.
And in Beaufort, the city will begin a multimillion-dollar effort to address drainage problems in flood-weary areas. An area covering 800 acres in the Mossy Oaks area, including part of the town of Port Royal, is the focus of initial work expected to include larger pipes, a new pond and cleared ditches.
Stephen Fastenau, Alex Kincaid, Katherine Kokal and Alec Snyder contributed.