When a team of elite architects descended on Hilton Head Island in the fall of 1995, they encountered a racially divided community steeped in distrust.
Native islanders said they were unheard and unwanted on the island. Their proof -- which they laid out for the planners from the American Institute of Architects -- included the town's incorporation in 1983 as a limited-services government that, they feared, would raise taxes for all but serve only the wealthy. They pointed to town maps that identified high-end, gated communities, but not the historical neighborhoods native islanders had called home for generations. They were literally shut out of much of the island where they had lived for generations. Just to visit the graves of their ancestors buried in the Harbour Town cemetery required permission from the Sea Pines security guards.
The resulting study, by one of the institute's Regional Urban Design Assistance Teams, determined there had been a "chronic failure" by the town to equitably address the needs of all of its residents. Too many residents lived on muddy, pitted, dirt roads. Too few had access to the basic services of sewer and water.
They called on the town to make an immediate commitment to change.
"There is a serious and apparently permanent inequity in the way the Town has used its powers to accomplish what the residents of the plantations clearly want for this island," the report concluded. "We do not believe the (recommendations) we outlined are options, but obligations."
Twenty years later, many of the recommendations have stalled or been ignored.
Only 17 percent of dirt roads on the north end of the island where many native islanders live have been paved since 1995, according to figures from the town and Beaufort County. And more then 900 homes and businesses remain on septic tanks.
While town leaders have made great strides in some areas that the RUDAT study highlighted, including completing a Ward 1 master land-use plan in 1999 and providing access to water lines to nearly all island residents, many say the response has been inadequate.
"Here we are in 2015 and we still haven't moved from one point to another," said Veronica Miller, president of the Stoney/Squire Pope Property Owners Association. Miller served on a steering committee for the 1995 RUDAT.
"I don't know why the town's dragging its feet, but we're still talking about the same things," she said.
'BUSINESS AS USUAL'
The town called one of the institute's Regional Urban Design Assistance Teams to Hilton Head Island to study the Ward 1 community on the north end of the island and suggest strategies to create economic growth and equity.
But town leaders were mixed on the ultimate findings and recommendations.
Former Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples, who was elected the same year, made the report's recommendations a centerpiece of his campaign, saying they "gave real validity to a lot of things the local black leadership had been saying for years." Today, Peeples said he never saw the report as a blueprint for change and still does not view paving roads as the solution to native islanders' problems. it is the right thing to do, he says, Beaufort County should be responsible. Other town staff members brushed the report off from the onset with arguments it was too simplistic and ignored the work they had already begun.
"They said you need to do this and you need to do that," Assistant Town Manager Chuck Hoelle said in 2001. "What I wanted from them is how you go about doing all these things, not pompous town-bashing."
The 63-page report claimed the rise of Hilton Head's gated communities had come at the expense of Ward 1 residents, who saw few economic benefits or additional services despite their skyrocketing taxes.
"And if being somewhere first counts for anything, it must bestow on these Island people a special equity in the well-being and bounty of the place," the report said.
The RUDAT report outlined several recommendations for the town, including:
- Dedicating half a year to focused master planning for Ward 1
- Creating a nonprofit to help citizens clear their heirs' property, which causes expensive legal work for residents and the town alike
- Making explicit policy commitments to provide running water and sewer for all residents
- Applying for $500 million in federal grants each year and spending up to $500,000 of the towns' own money each year until 2000 to cover whatever the grants could not.
By 2000, the RUDAT envisioned that all Ward 1 property owners would have the opportunity to connect to public water and sewer.
The town has since crafted a Master Land-Use Plan for Ward 1, which forged new property owners associations and improved communication between the town and residents. It also rezoned the island and put a halt to restricting development in Ward 1 to help manage traffic problems generated by existing communities elsewhere.
"I always felt that was really egregious," Peeples said of the town's history of limiting development on the north end. "I still think (rezoning the town) was huge, and has had a lot of positive impacts for native islander property owners."
Residents also received some general information from the Center for Heirs Property in Charleston, though the town did not seek to form a nonprofit of its own, town manager Steve Riley said.
But other recommendations were ignored, including creating a long-term source of funding to improve infrastructure in Ward 1 and developing a marketplace village to highlight and economically support Gullah culture.
Today, more than 500 homes remain on unpaved, north-end roads.
Since two decades have passed and many needs remain unmet, many native islanders now remember the RUDAT report as an empty promise, said Dot Law, the Chaplin/Marshland Property Owners Association president.
"Instead, exactly 20 years later, it's business as usual. It's just a big collection of papers," she said.
AIA volunteer teams have done hundreds of studies across the country since 1967, with more than $4 million in donated services.
Some RUDATs gave direction to communities ravaged by tornadoes, such as East Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., while others resulted in successful revitalization, such as Austin and San Angelo, Texas, Newport, Vt., and Sarasota, Fla.
In each case, a team of architects and planners spend four days in a municipality, culminating in a community meeting, brainstorming session and presentation.
To help the team make the most of their time on Hilton Head Island, a committee of locals met weekly for nearly a year to discuss the challenges facing the town and provide information to the architects and planners.
The group included native islanders as well as leaders like former mayor Martha Baumberger, renowned Gullah leader Emory Campbell, town manager Riley and then councilman Bill Ferguson.
Sea Pines president Charles Fraser provided information about the area's history.
Alan Mallach, one of the authors of the Hilton Head report, says it's rare for a local government not to take a RUDAT seriously.
However, most RUDATs lead to moderate change, not a complete transformation, he says. Mallach has not tracked Hilton Head's progress, but said he stands by his team's recommendations.
"This was an area where there were some legitimate health issues associated with not having sewers," Mallach said. "Roads, sewers, piped water. These are things that should be provided by a municipality."
The town has made some piecemeal progress.
Aside from finishing two paving projects in 1997, officials worked with Beaufort County to get 13 other north end roads paved since 1998. The public service district has made sewers available to about 95 percent of residents.
Still, native islanders say they want to see an inclusive plan for finishing the job.
Some residents plan to meet again in the coming weeks to discuss the town's priorities and ways to involve themselves in the process, said native islander Murray Christopher, who was chairman of the local RUDAT steering committee.
Christopher said locals were inspired to talk again after the town solicited their opinions on the importance of different projects at a town hall meeting in the fall.
Miller said she doesn't know what it will take to get results, but she's willing to try again.
"A town should be for the people, not some people," she said. "I just think we need to sit around the table one more time."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.