Bluffton officials defended an affordable-housing project Tuesday that will bring six cottages to old town, as residents criticized the town's foray into building and selling homes.
"We're in a financial crisis, especially in the housing market, and here the little town of Bluffton is going into the housing business," old town resident Bill Roe told the Affordable Housing Subcommittee. "It just doesn't make any sense."
About 10 people attended and three people asked questions about the project.
Roe questioned the costs of the $1 million project and said public has not been kept up to speed on the progress.
Subcommittee members -- who include Mayor Lisa Sulka, Councilman Fred Hamilton and assistant town manager for growth management Marc Orlando -- said their meetings are open to the public and that they post agendas, minutes and project updates to the town's website.
"We're not a secret club," Hamilton said. "We are wide open to the public."
Bluffton still has not worked out all details of the project, after Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity backed out of its partnership with the town in January.
A federal Neighborhood Stabilization Grant is providing about $727,000, and the Lowcountry Council of Governments is contributing $150,000.
Habitat for Humanity was to raise the additional $350,000 needed. Town officials have not said how that money would be replaced, although Orlando said the town is seeking other partners.
Habitat officials say they backed out because of concerns the town would be unable to meet a May 15 deadline to complete the project to keep its grant.
Town officials say they have gotten an extension from the state housing authority that administers the grant, and now the project must be completed by 2013. However, they say they have not received the extension in writing yet.
Orlando said the split with Habitat also occurred because the group would not build two-story homes in a style befitting old town design standards.
The project is now under town control so "let's get on with it," Orlando said.
The town is deciding which of two companies will manufacture and assemble the six modular homes on a half acre at the corner of Wharf and Robertson streets. The aim is to have a contract signed by April, Orlando said.
On Thursday, the subcommittee recommended hiring a consultant to market the homes, screen applicants and counsel them on home ownership -- tasks Habitat would have handled. The town intends to market the homes to people making no more than 80 percent of the county's average median income, which is $36,900 for one person or $52,700 for a household of four.
Planning Commission member Don Blair, a retired architect and community planner, said he doubts the town has the experience to handle the project. Blair also said town officials have not acted as though the grant is public money, and that residents will have just begun to question how the project is handled.
"I'm hoping for the best, but the jury is way out," he said.
Town manager Anthony Barrett said town officials working on the project have experience in development, engineering and finance, and are "very qualified" for the job. He offered to meet with the program's critics to assuage their concerns.
"We're moving forward, and there's no stopping us now," Hamilton said.