Beaufort News

Hilton Head looks to retool land-buying program to spark redevelopment

Having spent 20 years and more than $160 million buying land to preserve as open space, Hilton Head Island officials now say it might be time to use new purchases to spark redevelopment on the island.

Hilton Head has plenty of green space after buying and preserving more than 1,200 acres since the program began in the early 1990s, town manager Steve Riley said during a workshop Wednesday.

Those purchases have reduced commercial development by 4.5 million square feet, resulted in 1,365 fewer motel rooms and 4,547 fewer homes, condos, apartments and timeshares, according to town figures.

"We've reduced build-out of the island, built parks and fire stations, preserved open space, provided public access and views of the water, and reduced traffic congestion," Riley said. "There's not much more we can do to preserve green space."

Now facing a glut of distressed commercial real estate, officials are considering using future property purchases to spark redevelopment.

Some council members said the program could be retooled to buy distressed commercial property worth less than its outstanding loans. Some of the land would be converted to or combined with existing green space and parks. The rest would be "banked" for future development.

In theory, those new "green fields" would lead to redevelopment of surrounding areas, Riley said, since parks can create more liveable, healthier communities. The concept is similar to that of tax increment financing, which helps pay for new streetlights, roads, sidewalks and other improvements aimed at spurring growth.

Council looked to Greenville as an example, which has bought land or used money to leverage private investment to redevelop its downtown.

Hilton Head has proposed trading land it owns south of Pope Avenue for commercially owned land north of the road to create a quarter-mile-long park surrounded by new commercial and residential development.

"Generally, we have used land swaps, but have not had any investment. It (the town's role) has been more facilitation," Riley said.

Residents in early 2009 strongly opposed using proceeds from the town's last bond referendum for economic development.

But if the ongoing Coligny redevelopment plan is to advance and the town is to redevelop other parts of the island, it will need money, Riley said, something that's running low.

The town has about $2.4 million left to use from a $12 million bond issue in 2010 for the land buying program. It could borrow another $5 million. Voters in 2008 approved borrowing up to $17 million to buy land.

Another $2.3 million was set aside in July 2010 from prior land sales to meet debt payments, but could be tapped for other purposes, Riley said.

Some questioned whether residents are willing to have town money used to buy land for redevelopment.

"This program has been the most important and successful program the town has undertaken as a centerpiece of managed growth and creation of parks, green space and vistas," said Mayor Drew Laughlin. "But we're getting toward the end of what's productive. ... If we are going to do big things like Coligny -- if we're going to pursue these public/private partnerships like Greenville -- it's going to require a big commitment of this town. And that commitment is just as important as the one we made 20-some years ago to preserving open space."

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