Hilton Head mayor outlines broad plans at State of the Town address

Newly elected Mayor Drew Laughlin laid out broad plans Wednesday to revitalize Hilton Head Island, including establishing two new committees -- one to advise the town on redevelopment and the other to seek improved cell phone, wireless and broadband Internet service.

He also wants to see action on dredging waterways in Sea Pines, which have become clogged with mud and sand, making it difficult for large yachts and charter boats to traverse at low tide.

Laughlin said during his first "State of the Town" address, sponsored by the island's League of Women Voters, that he intends to seek council approval for a committee to make recommendations for revising zoning and land-planning regulations to spur redevelopment.

A centerpiece of Laughlin's campaign was rewriting ordinances to be less complicated and burdensome for residents and businesses wanting to improve their properties. He also pledged to make economic development a top priority.

"There are signs of improvement in the economy, and money that's been sitting on the sideline is now being looked at for possible new investment," he said. "We need to direct that money in a way that's most effective and beneficial to the needs of the community."

Another part of improving the economy is telecommunications. Laughlin said he met with former mayoral challenger Jim Collett about setting up a group to assess the island's cell phone coverage, which residents have long complained about, and make recommendations on filling coverage gaps.

Collett has advocated improving cell phone and Internet service to attract more tourists, business meetings and a mobile workforce.

Laughlin said he's also looking for a solution to dredging Sea Pines waterways.

The channels to the Harbour Town Yacht Basin and South Beach and Gull marinas gradually have been filling in.

"There is an urgent need there and clear public interest to solve that issue," Laughlin said. "That has real economic consequences attached to it. ... Hopefully it can get done -- not on the town's nickel."

A 2003 effort to deepen the waterways was halted after a contractor was accused of improperly dumping dredge spoil into Calibogue Sound, as opposed to an approved offshore site. The project manager was acquitted of federal criminal charges, and the dredging association settled with state officials, paying $50,000 while admitting no wrongdoing.

The project is still in limbo, and questions remain about to how to pay for and manage it. Restrictions on how and where dredge spoil can be deposited have made it cost prohibitive, Laughlin said. That puts pressure on the town to play a more direct role.

"(The dredging association) wants open-water disposal, which drives the environmental people absolutely nuts. But open-water disposal is far and away the least costly way to do it," Laughlin said.

He said there's been work to establish an on-land disposal site on Calibogue Cay, but it's not large enough to handle all the spoil. That plan also could meet resistance from Calibogue Cay residents.

"Lack of a good nearby upland disposal site is a clear problem," he said.

Hilton Head Plantation resident Pat Timmerman said she was pleased to hear Laughlin's plans for redevelopment.

"The most important thing for all of us is the continued development of this island in keeping with (Sea Pines founder) Charles Fraser's vision," Timmerman said. "I think Drew brought that to light."

Indigo Run resident Jack Burke said Laughlin's address demonstrated the new mayor has a clear grasp of the issues.

"I'm optimistic he will lead the town in a way these concerns will be addressed," Burke said.