Sprawling development projects from 2008 return to Beaufort Co. What it means for neighbors

A decade after the controversial Okatie Village project failed during the recession, a revised plan could bring more than 600 homes and a mix of commercial developments between S.C. 170 and the marshes of the Okatie River.

The plan includes two remnants from the sprawling 2008 Okatie Village project. One, Osprey Point, is a done deal, approved by the Beaufort County Council in July. The plan for 119 acres is a mix of commercial and residential developments, including 345 homes. The second piece, River Oaks, has preliminary approval for 315 single-family homes on 63 acres and will come before the council next month on second reading.

Just off S.C. 170 on a dirt road shrouded from the highway by layers of trees, residents of Cherry Point Road worry about what such massive developments will do for their quality of life by the Okatie River. They fear traffic will make their neighborhood unsafe. They say hundreds more children will crowd the schools. Suburban problems will replace the rural life they’ve been accustomed to.

Some council members echo those concerns and say the River Oaks development plan doesn’t pay enough to offset the impact on schools. They say the development should be an age-restricted community, not homes for young families.

Council members who support the project say that if it isn’t approved, a development of lesser quality will be built instead. Or, as the owner has threatened in the past, the land could be annexed into Hardeeville, which would take away Beaufort County’s ability to control what happens to it.

The Plans

In 2008, the County Council approved the Okatie Village project, a series of more than 1,000 homes in planned communities near the Okatie River. However, the project never got its footing after the economy crashed. Two parcels that were part of the plan, Okatie Marsh and the original iteration of River Oaks, went into foreclosure. The county purchased one of them, the Okatie Marsh tract, from BB&T bank in 2012 through its Rural and Critical Lands Program, preventing development.

The new Okatie Village project includes revised plans for Osprey Point and River Oaks. In July, council approved a revised development agreement for Osprey Point from owner LCP III. The plan calls for 207,000 square feet of commercial development and reduces the number of residential units to 345 from 527. The second plan, River Oaks, owned by BBII Holding, received preliminary council approval in a 5-4 vote on first reading last month.

River Oaks, the more contentious plan of the two, calls for 315 single-family units — with 40 deed-restricted as affordable — adjacent to Osprey Point. In 2014, the previous owner of the River Oaks plan was able to change the agreement, using a “minor amendment” that did not require council approval, from an age-restricted retirement community to a non-age restricted, family community.

“Lowcountry way of life”

Residents of the small community along Cherry Point Road — about 20 homes — say the impact of the two developments would significantly hurt their property, the already fragile environment, and Okatie Elementary.

Cathy Scott, who has lived on Cherry Point Road for 35 years, said the county hasn’t listened to her concerns about the developments. She said the projects would make traveling their small, private dirt road, which already has traffic problems, much worse.

“The Lowcountry way of life is no more,” she said.

Scott also criticized removal of the age restriction on the River Oaks development and questioned what family housing would mean for schools. Okatie Elementary is at 91 percent capacity now.

Council Vice Chairman Paul Sommerville, who voted against the River Oaks project last month, said he has the same concerns about the River Oaks development’s effect on Cherry Point Road, the Okatie River and the low impact fees paid by the developer.

“I will continue to vote against it until my last breath,” he said. “Cherry Point Road is a private road. Legacy road. Who’s going to widen it? Who’s going to pave it? You’re talking about the need for some major improvements.”

Sommerville said the schools in the area need capital improvements, and he pushed the developer for a school impact fee of $6,000 per home. However, the fee now being discussed is $1,500 per home. He said the previous developer’s decision to lift the age restriction on the development was a “major screw up.”

Councilman Chris Hervochon, one of five council members who voted for the project, said if the council rejects the development, the county could be stuck with a less desirable plan. He also said some council members who oppose the project are concerned about the small number of affordable housing units, but Hervochon said all of the units would be considered affordable houses, regardless of having deed restrictions on only 40 of the units.

Without council approval, the developer “can build something there now. The quality’s not going to be very good,” he said.

Councilman Mike Covert, also in favor of the River Oaks project, said the owner has the right to build on the land regardless of council approval, but having that approval would guarantee that affordable housing is built in the area. He said he is sympathetic with the residents, but turning down the project would be much worse.

“If this gets voted down, what they can build under by-right development...everybody will be disappointed in. It won’t be pretty,” he said. Beaufort County, he added, needs to “live up to the talk and provide for builders to build affordable homes” to keep residents in the area where they work.

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A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, 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.