UNOFFICIAL RETURNS: Laughlin new mayor by slim margin

After months of campaigning and two elections in a race that included seven candidates, Hilton Head Island finally has a new mayor — and another election on tap.

By a slim margin, voters in a runoff tonight chose sitting Ward 3 Town Council member Drew Laughlin over architect Tom Crews, the last two candidates left standing after a seven-candidate, non-partisan race in the Nov. 2 general election.

According to unofficial results, Laughlin, who got the most votes in the general election, captured 51.32 percent to Crews' 48.68 percent with 31 of 33 precincts reporting in the runoff. The margin was 223 votes. The final two precincts will not be counted until Thursday's canvassing hearing, when the vote totals will be made official.

If the results are confirmed, Laughlin will be sworn in Dec. 7, replacing Tom Peeples, who did no seek re-election after 15 years. Peeples endorsed Laughlin days before the general election.

A special election will be held March 8 to fill the remainder of Laughlin’s council term, which expires in December 2012. Candidate filing for the seat would begin at noon Dec. 24 and end at noon Jan. 3, said Scott Marshall, county elections director.

Laughlin's Ward 3 seat covers these gated communities: Spanish Wells, Wexford, Long Cove Club and Shipyard.

The race brought to the forefront concerns over economic decline on Hilton Head Island, including land-use regulations and zoning ordinances many candidates said restrict commercial development. Concerns also surfaced about the health of the island's tourism industry, property values, improvements to the county-owned airport and environmental protection.

Laughlin said he plans to continue his campaign of supporting business on the island, including rewriting the town's Land Management Ordinance to allow revitalization of older properties more quickly, at less expense and without unnecessary restrictions.

Fewer voters turned out for the runoff compared to two weeks ago, but surpassed numbers typically seen in municipal elections, Marshall said.

About half the people who voted in the Nov. 2 election voted Tuesday on Hilton Head, according to unofficial results.

About 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the general election on Hilton Head. Just less than 33 percent did so in the runoff.

Both Crews and Laughlin ran positive campaigns focusing on their experience and views on key issues facing the town, and refrained from personal attacks, to the point where Crews credited Laughlin’s service on council in an appeal for support from voters.

Crews asked voters to choose him, in part, because if Laughlin loses, he keeps his Town Council seat, and the council would be more effective with both he and Laughlin on board.