Beaufort News

Home builders hammer county water pollution proposal

Home builders say Beaufort County's latest proposal to keep pollution out of waterways would not improve water quality but would drive up costs and discourage construction.

A year and a half after the county mandated that developments keep runoff volume to pre-development levels, it is considering applying those same rules to more than 22,000 lots where homes have been approved but not built.

The changes unanimously passed County Council's Natural Resources Committee last week and are to be considered by the full council at 4 p.m. Monday. County officials say the changes are not burdensome and are critical to protecting rivers and creeks from further degradation.

Builders agree some waterways in northern and southern Beaufort County need protection and acknowledge pristine waterways help sell property. But they say the changes won't fix the problems, are being pushed through too fast and could increase the price of a home by an average of about $6,000 by requiring elaborate engineering and systems of gutters, trenches and other drainage.

Particularly in a down economy, they say they and their customers shouldn't be punished for a problem they suspect is more likely caused by water flowing from other sources, such as roads, bridges and military installations.

"How do future homes affect a problem that's happening now?" asked Annie Hansen, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of the Lowcountry in Beaufort.

Hansen's group and the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association have encouraged members to attend the county's meetings on the issue. She said business leaders, suppliers, surveyors, developers and real estate agents also should be concerned.

County officials say they responded to builders' concerns and tried to lower costs by dropping a requirement that houses store and reuse rain water that would otherwise wash off of their lots. Without that requirement, they estimate many affected homes could be built with an added cost of less than $2,000.

The builders aren't satisfied.

They suspect true costs would be greater than the county estimates, and they argue it isn't necessary to regulate stormwater so tightly in areas that don't drain into critical waterways.

They call it an "anti-growth policy" that could make it more difficult to build affordable housing, and they question the point of imposing changes only in unincorporated Beaufort County. They say municipalities probably won't agree to the changes, and they suspect that could lead developers to "zone shop" for friendlier rules in other jurisdictions.

Ashley Feaster, executive officer of the Hilton Head association, said the issue needs more study so county officials can better identify the most critical areas, ensure homeowners maintain new drainage systems, involve municipalities in the process, and address the effect on affordable housing.

"It just seems to me there hasn't been enough done to make sure we're doing this the right way," Feaster said.

Like the builders, government officials in Beaufort and Port Royal also have argued against a "one-size-fits-all" approach as they negotiate intergovernmental agreements about stormwater with the county.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, also a real estate broker, likened the county's changes to imposing remedies for a cancer patient on "someone who may stub their toe tomorrow."

He said the changes, which also would apply to major renovations of existing homes in areas without volume-control systems, could discourage the dense redevelopment the city seeks.

Dan Ahern, county stormwater utility manager, characterized the changes as the last steps necessary to "stop the bleeding." The county then could address the impact of existing development by building regional treatment systems where needed and providing incentives to encourage people to improve their own systems, he said.

He said the latest version of the changes would add about $1 to $2 per heated square foot to the cost of an affected home.

There would be "an infinite number of ways" for builders to comply, however, and they would be exempt from doing so if developers opt to retrofit entire neighborhoods instead, he said. For example, the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has concluded the Battery Shores subdivision in Beaufort could fully comply with the changes by installing vegetated "rain gardens" in roadside ditches to filter runoff.

Ahern said affordable housing and urban infill development could be done at reasonable cost as long as they are designed effectively.

He said the changes are unlikely to lead to zoning shopping because municipal officials are also trying to protect local waters.

He disputed the notion the changes would not help water quality, saying further harm is inevitable if more homes are allowed to be built under current rules.

"There's no scientists that are saying anything different," he said.