Nature-blending or banning bright colors: What exactly is Hilton Head’s elusive ‘brand’?

When Mayor John McCann ran for office in 2018, one of his campaign themes was “when you drive over the Hilton Head bridges, you know you’re coming home.”

His sentiment elicited a feeling of homecoming for natives, visitors-turned-residents, and vacationers on the island. This feeling is at the root of many decisions made by elected officials, business owners and islanders who cite the “Hilton Head brand.”

Although not often defined beyond a sense of “environmental stewardship,” the Hilton Head “brand” was at the forefront of Town Council member Tamara Becker’s concerns on Tuesday about the impending Shelter Cove corridor project — which will add turning lanes and two traffic signals along U.S. 278.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure and pavement,” Becker said. “That just doesn’t feel like the character of Hilton Head.”

Citizens and town leaders also used the brand to challenge a plan for 300 apartments priced upwards of $1,200 per month. The apartments were proposed for the Hilton Head Christian Academy site, which will be empty when the school moves to Bluffton in 2020.

“We should deny this application,” council member David Ames said at the March 5 meeting where the application was first presented. “What’s more important to the island’s way of life: market-rate housing or affordable housing?”

The brand also protects buffers that keep U.S. 278 surrounded by trees and landscaping as opposed to billboards and neon signs.

But this elusive brand that leaders try to protect doesn’t always fall on the anti-development side.

In January, council member Bill Harkins encouraged lighting of the Yacht Cove intersection crosswalk as long as it was “aesthetically consistent” for the brand of the island.

Yacht Cove Drive crosswalk 1
The intersection near Yacht Cove on U.S. 278, where the Town of Hilton Head Island is beginning a pilot crosswalk lighting project after the 2018 death of an 11-year-old girl who was crossing the street. Staff file.

Council members also largely supported the Coligny-area Lowcountry Celebration Park on Pope Avenue on the basis of being consistent with the island’s brand and the possibility of becoming a signature attraction for residents and visitors. The project requires three years of roadway construction on one of Hilton Head’s busiest roads.

An aerial view illustrating the conceptual architecture of the future “Lowcountry Celebration Park” near Coligny and Pope Avenue on Hilton Head Island. In the foreground is the the pavilion, restrooms and drop off area at the far left and a children’s museum is seen on the right side of the drawing. Town of Hilton Head Island Wood Partners Inc

The brand is also marketed nationwide by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, which features the island’s outdoor activities and natural beauty on its website’s activity section.

“Hilton Head is America’s favorite island, offering 12 miles of pristine beaches and everything you need for the ultimate retreat. Enjoy easy days relaxing in the sun, sand and surf on some of the best beaches in the country,” the chamber tells potential visitors on its website.

The keepers of the brand

So what is the brand? No one really knows.

In the 34-page design review guide for buildings on the island, there’s not a table that outlines specific do’s and don’ts of “island character.”

“If I had to boil it down to two words ... nature-blending is probably the key word,” Michael Gentemann, vice chairman of the design review board, told The Island Packet.

The seven-person volunteer board — one of the gatekeepers of commercial development — meets with contractors and designers to “review the architectural and landscape plans” for proposed island businesses, according to the town’s website.

DRB often returns pages of feedback including suggestions on lighting fixtures, landscaping, land management ordinance requirements and building colors.

“We’re basically referees,” Gentemann told The Island Packet. “We are more of the aesthetic purveyors.”

Next week, the board will hear Atlanta-based contractor Chris Nardone’s second application to give the Shelter Cove- area T.J. Maxx store a facelift, which he says will “modernize” the mid-island storefront.

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The proposed design for the T.J. Maxx on Hilton Head Island. Town of Hilton Head Island application materials

Nardone said contractors who regularly work on Hilton Head come to expect things like the DRB’s color and lighting requirements, which he says change “every few years when a new board is appointed.”

While some incarnations of the DRB value limiting tree removal, others dig in on paint colors or the amount of pavement proposed for a lot.

But the board is tied to the design guidelines, Gentemann said. The guidelines say “franchise” or “theme” architecture is not appropriate for the island, require earth tones as predominant colors and “strongly encourage” the use of wood materials.

“We obviously did not write those guidelines, because the board changes every three years,” he said. “It’s not a black and white document, but many things are pretty well spelled out.

Nardone and the T.J. Maxx property owner got feedback from the board last week, when officials said they will need to see a demolition plan for the project and proof that the team “treats the landscape as a major element of the project.”

Elsewhere on the island, the DRB uses the design guide to challenge bright colors or otherwise “unnatural” elements of potential developments.

When a restauranteur applied to open an Amish restaurant with a bright red roof on the south end last month, the feedback he received read: “The Board generally agreed the roof needs to be restudied and the red color is not in keeping with Island character.”

Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.