674 new homes could be coming to Bluffton. Some residents want more transparency

For the first time since 2011, Bluffton is using a controversial process to vet development projects. In the past six months, the town has enlisted an appointed “negotiating committee” to meet with developers, once in secret, and the town council also has discussed development contracts in closed session.

Among the fastest growing towns in South Carolina, Bluffton is considering proposals that would add hundreds more homes to the town’s housing stock. But its murky process of determining how property can be developed, how dense it can be and what percentage is “affordable” housing has prompted calls for greater transparency. The process also calls into question the accountability of a seven-member development-vetting committee, only two of whom are elected officials.

The negotiating committee, formed in April, is considering two development plans for a total of 674 homes. In both cases, developers have asked to change their original agreements. Southeastern Development Associates wants to change the location for its planned 392 units, to U.S. 278 and Hampton Parkway from Buckwalter Place. Village Park Homes proposes to add 206 more units — a mix of townhomes and single-family units — to the Alston Park development in the New Riverside area, which is already planned for 76 units.

A third plan from Indian Hill Associates to renegotiate terms to build a road in Willow Run will be discussed on Oct. 16.

All but 8% of Bluffton is already planned. Seven development agreements span about 32,000 acres — Bluffton Village, Schultz Tract, Village at Verdier, Buckwalter, Jones Estate, New Riverside and Palmetto Bluff — and 38% of those developments have been built, according to town documents.

The Town of Bluffton and developers sign agreements for planned, long-term development. Through a review process ultimately approved by the Town Council, those agreements can be amended to include changes such as the number of units or the addition of workforce housing.

The first step of the review process starts with the town’s newly re-established negotiating committee.

The Negotiating Committee

In 1998, a lawsuit from Bluffton resident Sherre Colborn claimed the town of Bluffton violated state law by going behind closed doors to negotiate annexation and development agreements for the Schultz and Palmetto Bluff tracts. The town settled with Colborn, and the negotiating committee agreed to hold its meetings in public.

“Everything should be out in the open,” Colborn said in 2000.

Now, more than 20 years after the lawsuit was filed, some residents say the town is again negotiating changes to development agreements in secret.

The purpose of the negotiating committee, according to town documents, is for the town, applicants and property owners to discuss development proposals of “significant complexity, size or impact.” Proposals are referred to the negotiating committee by council. The goal, said Fred Hamilton, one of the members, is to “make sure there’s another layer of understanding” for each of the proposed changes to development agreements.

The most recent committee meeting before this year was held on Jan. 27, 2011. Meetings resumed in July. The committee didn’t meet for eight years because no major changes to development agreements were necessary until now, said Hamilton, who chairs the Affordable Housing Committee.

Four other members serve in their public or professional capacities: Lisa Sulka, Bluffton’s mayor; Alice Howard, Beaufort County councilwoman; Josh Tiller, Planning Commission chair; and Matt Green, board chair of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, a business incubator. Ashley Feaster, Palmetto Electric manager for Community Affairs and Economic Development, and Deborah Edmondson, a real estate agent, serve as Bluffton residents.

A portion of the meeting is open for public comment, but some issues related to the agreements have been discussed in closed session, including in Sept. 10’s negotiating committee meeting.

In an Oct. 2 letter to the editor, Bluffton resident Mike Turner said he was concerned by the committee’s “lack of transparency” and that all negotiations related to development should be done in public session.

“The public deserves to know beyond the original concept plan submitted by the developer (the only document we have seen to date) what the concerns are of the committee members, what reactions to the citizen concerns are being considered, what concessions of taxes due and permit fees are being considered to be given up, what development ordinance regulations are not being met or will require being waived, etc.,” he wrote.

Asked about the transparency of the process, Heather Colin, Bluffton’s director of growth management, said, “there’s a process for executive session,” and that discussions regarding legal advice and contractual matters aren’t required to be public, according to state law.

At Monday’s negotiating committee meeting, Mayor Sulka said the committee would try to be as public as possible in negotiations.

Sulka did not return two calls for comment on Wednesday and Thursday.

674 New Homes?

The two plans on the negotiating committee’s plate right now are proposals from Southeastern and Village Park Homes.

On March 3, Southeastern requested to transfer 392 residential dwelling units planned for Buckwalter Place to U.S. 278 and Hampton Parkway. The developer is asking the town to amend its original agreement — which limits the location to Buckwalter — and allow the homes to be built at the new proposed location.

Under its proposed revision, Southeastern wants to build the 392 homes on 59 acres by the Okatie River. Developers Southeastern and Harris Teeter say that 10 percent of the units will be “affordable homes” for people who make no more than $83,000 a year — the area’s median family income.

At Monday’s Negotiating Committee meeting, Hamilton said he wanted 20 percent of the units to be for people who make between $49,800 and $83,000 a year.

The other plan still in the negotiating phase is Village Park Homes’ request to add 206 more units to the 67.64-acre Alston Park development, which has already been approved for 76 units. The developer described the plan as a “solution” to Bluffton’s affordable housing problem. Village Park Homes also asked for a reduction in development fees to save the company thousands of dollars.

Some residents, including members of the newly created Committee for Responsible Growth in Bluffton, oppose Village Park Homes’ proposal and say adding 206 more homes will increase the density of the area — hurting the environment, increasing traffic, crowding schools and jeopardizing safety.

Mayor Sulka has said affordable housing is necessary “to keep our young people here living in the town they work in.”

Growth in Bluffton

The building and population boom — resulting in a shortage of affordable housing for the workforce — is a well known and hotly contested issue in Bluffton. Over the past eight years, Bluffton’s population jumped 76.9 percent — from 13,060 to 23,097.

As Bluffton continues to grow and rent gets more expensive, many businesses have felt the burden of workforce shortages with “ghost applicants,” short staffing and longer wait times.

The average rent in Bluffton is $1,456 per month, according to the U.S. Census. That’s well above what’s considered “affordable” for a single worker — $850 per month — according to a recent study on workforce housing commissioned by the Hilton Head Island Town Council.

Some residents near the Alston Park planned development say Village Park Homes’ plan is far from the solution to Bluffton’s affordable housing problem. They point out that there is no access to public transportation, for example.

Dallas Hutcheson, a member of the Committee for Responsible Growth in Bluffton, wrote that he considered Southeastern’s proposal for affordable housing “more reasonable” than Village Park Homes’ plan to add 206 more units.

“The Committee for Responsible Growth in Bluffton is NOT against affordable housing,” he wrote to The Island Packet. “We ARE against overwhelming density that Village Park Homes is requesting.”

The Growth and Development Reporter for the Island Packet, Kacen Bayless is a native of Ballwin, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.