Could these small changes make a big difference for parking in Old Town Bluffton?

Could a series of tweaks to Bluffton’s town code help make it easier for locals and visitors to find parking in the bustling historic district?

Bluffton elected officials and staffers hope so and are looking to developers and business owners to help.

Vacant buildings were demolished to make room for additional parking on town-owned property in Old Town Bluffton.

Bluffton Town Council provided preliminary approval Tuesday evening to a set of design standards changes aimed at reducing the Old Town parking crunch chiefly by increasing the number of parking spaces required at future restaurant and lodging establishments.

Kevin Icard, Bluffton’s planning and community development manager, said recent rapid development has caused town leaders and staff to reconsider how much parking private businesses should contribute to the historic district.

While many agree that parking can be a challenge — particularly during peak hours around lunch and dinner times, as well as during festivals and events — Bluffton leaders must walk a fine line between adding adequate spaces and the risk of harming Old Town’s character.

Bluffton’s Old Town Master Plan, a document used to help staff and elected officials guide growth, addresses this potential conflict.

“Old Town must have parking, but the town must handle parking in smart ways so that it does not dominate the entire environment,” according to the plan.

But, as the town grows and businesses continue to sprout up around the historic district “the need to update parking regulations in response to (growth) is evident,” town planning documents say. “(Bluffton town planning staff) recognizes that the current parking standards, specifically for restaurants, require revisions in response to recent land development challenges associated with the current parking regulations.”

Current town code requires restaurants in the historic district to provide four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of building space. The proposed code changes would bump that requirement to six spaces.

Bluffton Town Councilman Larry Toomer said that standard “is not working — you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that.”

Changes for parking at retail shops, which are required to have two spaces for every 1,000 square feet, are not currently being proposed.

Other proposed tweaks to regulations — which govern all new development and redevelopment projects — include stricter guidelines on how property owners are allowed count nearby public parking toward their required number of spaces and efforts aimed at improving the effectiveness and efficiency of shared parking agreements.

Current regulations can be complicated, confusing, and “as clear as mud,” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said.

If town leaders ultimately opt to change parking regulations, it would not be unprecedented.

Town code was amended in 2015, essentially doubling the number of spaces required for new restaurants and businesses.

Bluffton leaders are expected to hold a final vote and a public hearing on the parking-related code changes next month. The specifics of the proposed code changes could change slightly prior to that vote.

Meanwhile, the town has ramped up its own efforts in recent months to provide more parking options in and around the historic district.

Town-owned property on Boundary Street, Bluffton Road, and Dr. Mellichamp Drive is expected to be used to add roughly new public 180 spaces.