The Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort metro area was the 12th fastest-growing community in the nation from 2014 to 2015, according new statistics released from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Beaufort County gained more than 5,000 residents — a 2.6 percent increase — for a population of 179,589 people. Jasper County, also included in the metro area, gained 654 residents — a 2.4 percent increase — for a total of 27,824 people.
Other parts of the state are experiencing significant growth too. The Myrtle Beach area is the second fastest growing community in the nation and the Charleston area is the 19th, according to the new data.
But residents shouldn’t worry about it getting too crowded.
“Compared to where a lot of people are moving from, it’s still very small,” said Ginnie Kozak, planning director at the Lowcountry Council of Governments. “And I think, hopefully, there seems to be a big movement to try to preserve the feeling that is here through planning.”
She added that the area’s geography — bound by wetlands, rivers and the ocean — will eventually help cap its population growth. But for now, there’s still breathing room for new residents and visitors, Kozak said.
It’s kind of nice to see things happening.
Ginnie Kozak, planning director for the Lowcountry Council of Governments
For example, she noted the number of available workers in Beaufort County grew 2.8 percent to about 70,400 in 2015, and the number of jobs grew even faster, by 4 percent to about 66,700.
And some of those jobs are to finish building the many new homes approved last year. The council approved sewers for 735 new homes in the first three months of 2015, and has approved another 157 so far in 2016. Kozak said she’s excited, not worried, to think of people moving into those homes.
“A lot of us watched from 2008 to 2012 and ‘13, when nothing was happening,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to see things happening.”
The area’s growth doesn’t surprise most residents of the county, which was listed as the No. 13 fastest-growing community in 2014.
Local officials and community planners have been trying to adapt to the growth for several years, including the addition of airlines to the nearby Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport — now seeing nearly as many passengers as in 2005 — along with the widening of U.S. 278 and the construction of the Bluffton Parkway flyover.
Some of the efforts don’t sit well with locals including Karl Engelman, a longtime Sea Pines resident and an outspoken critic of the town’s plans to build a University of South Carolina Beaufort campus on the south end of the island. A town committee is still grappling with how to manage its current traffic congestion, let alone the projected increase over the next 20 years.
“I keep telling these people what they’re trying to do is force a quarter into a dime slot,” Engelman said. “These (transplants) didn’t come here to sit in traffic. They came here to enjoy the waning years of their life.”
In some parts of the region, people are even having to bolster once-quaint community events.
Last Thursday, the Bluffton Farmers Market began running a trolley service to and from its location on Old Town’s Calhoun Street to accomadate the large number of customers, about half of which are locals, said manager Kim Viljac. About 100 people rode the trolley that first day, she said.
“There’s no doubt that we have parking challenges with all this development down here, but it’s actually a good thing,” she said. “People are finding out about Bluffton. Businesses are doing well. They’re able to expand.”
School officials have had to make much bigger changes. Superintendent Jeff Moss said the Beaufort County School District is growing by 300 to 600 students each year, meaning it needs another school every few years.
Bluffton saw the opening of River Ridge Academy in the fall, and will open the new May River High School next year. To pay for future construction, Moss has asked the school board to pursue a 1 percent educational sales tax expected to generate $282 million over the course of 10 years.
And to grapple with a growing population of Latino students, it’s launching an English Language Academy next year. Participants would study only English until they are proficient, which could take six months or a year.
“There are a lot of moving parts to growth and it doesn’t end just when the folks move into the homes being built,” Moss said. “Obviously, that’s just the beginning.”
- Beaufort County ranked among nation's 20 fastest-growing metros, March 26, 2016