Walkers vs. riders -- Town might take over state-owned roads to foster a slower pace at Coligny Circle

Unable to dictate the design of state-owned roads on Hilton Head Island, the town might seek the benefits of ownership.

Town officials are considering negotiating with the S.C. Department of Transportation to take over portions of roads that feed Coligny Circle. They want to turn the area into a "downtown" walking district of shops and cafes. The DOT typically frowns upon such projects for public roads, which it prefers to keep open to vehicle traffic, town officials say.

Coligny Beach Park redevelopment has produced more and better public space, but not enough to create the walking district the area is zoned to become, town staff members said.

More needs to be done to increase pedestrians' safety and their access to the beach, park and shops, said Mike Roan, town urban design administrator.

Suggestions include narrowing Pope Avenue and adding pathways.

"There's no easy way for pedestrians to move through the area," Roan said. "It's prioritized to move cars through."

The only crosswalks in the area, at Coligny Circle and at Lagoon Road, are 400 feet apart.

Redeveloping the area is one of Town Council's top priorities for 2010. The town spent $1.6 million in 2009 to redevelop Coligny Beach Park, installing new bathrooms, boardwalks, a fountain and other amenities.

Roan said state transportation officials are willing to pay for certain road improvements but are less accommodating when it comes to streetscape and landscape improvements like the ones suggested. The town also is paying for a majority of the cost to maintain some state-owned roads.

The island paid $650,000 of a $1 million DOT project to repave North Forest Beach Drive, South Forest Beach Drive and Coligny Circle about three years ago.

"We're putting money into maintaining someone else's property, but not being able to have a say in how the property is used," Roan said. "We get all the detriment of ownership and none of the benefit."

Taking over portions of state-owned roads would add expense to the town's budget. Town traffic and transportation engineer Darrin Shoemaker said the DOT spends, on average, about $25,000 a year maintaining one mile of road.

Roan said it's unclear how much roadway the town might acquire, if given council approval. Staff, though, will most likely look at areas along Pope Avenue from Circle Center to Coligny Circle and parts of South Forest Beach Drive near Coligny Circle.

The move would be unusual for the town.

"This is not something we regularly do because we don't have a public works department" to maintain roads, said Teri Lewis, town land management official.

Lewis said the DOT has not been contacted about the project because the staff first wants to get direction from Town Council.

Attempts Wednesday to reach the DOT maintenance office in Beaufort were unsuccessful.

Arielle Farrar, manager of Wax and Beyond in Coligny Plaza, said she supports narrowing Pope Avenue and adding pathways.

"It sounds like a good idea to me. It would make it safer for people who do walk and ride bikes to the beach and shops," Farrar said. "And it could possibly lead to increased business."