Bluffton will again consider annexation of Graves tract

The Bluffton Town Council will today consider annexing 142 acres along the Okatie River, a move that concerns some environmentalists.

The proposal is the latest of several annexation requests the town has heard from the Graves family in recent years. Three family members want the town to annex the mostly rural property, called Pepperhall Plantation, and add it to the Buckwalter planned-unit development. In the past, the developers have sought annexation to build more homes and commercial development than the county would allow.

The Town Council will meet to consider first reading of the request at 6 p.m. at Town Hall at 20 Bridge St.

Town officials referred questions to director of growth management Marc Orlando. Attempts Monday to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. Attempts to reach the applicants also were unsuccessful.

The land, immediately north of U.S. 278 and east of the river, consists of open fields, marsh and several single-family residences, according to a staff report Orlando prepared for the council.

The Coastal Conservation League opposes the annexation, said Andrea Malloy, interim director of the environmental advocacy group's south coast office.

Malloy said government officials shouldn't open the door to more construction until they solve water-quality problems in the Okatie and May rivers.

If Bluffton approves annexation and more intense development on the Graves' property, town officials would signal they have "given up" on the Okatie River, she said.

Much of the Okatie is closed to shellfish harvesting because the river contains high levels of fecal coliform, she said. Environmental officials have closed oyster beds there since 1995, and a coalition of a dozen public and private agencies last year embarked on a three-year, $653,000 project to reduce pollutants from all known and suspected sources of fecal coliform.

"The town and county need to get their hands around the current water-quality crisis before approving further development, particularly in the headwaters areas of these two impaired waterways," Malloy said. "Until you have the oysters back, why put even more development on the table?"

Nancy Schilling, an environmental advocate and a resident of nearby Pinckney Colony, said the Graves' annexation request is disconcerting because of the town's track record with the May River, where shellfishing also is prohibited in large swaths.

"I don't feel the May River was well-protected," Schilling said.

This is at least the third attempt by the Graves family to have parts of its property annexed.

The town approved on first reading a request from family members to annex 150 acres in 2010. It's not clear what came of that request.

Family members were among six developers who sought annexation of 235 acres in 2008. That request failed after a tie vote of the Town Council.

Follow reporter Josh McCann at twitter.com/lowcobiz.