Elections

Bluffton elects political newcomer to council. Will she shake things up?

Bluffton voters elected a young political newcomer and returned a longtime civic leader to the Town Council, according to unofficial Beaufort County election results, indicating some voter dissatisfaction with the status quo but raising questions about too much Old Town representation on the council.

In the three-candidate race for two seats on Town Council, Councilman Dan Wood and newcomer Bridgette Frazier received the most votes, with Councilman Harry Lutz placing third. Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, running unopposed, was re-elected to her fourth term.

Wood was the top vote-getter, with 2,308 votes, or 38 percent of the 6,047 votes cast. Frazier won the second council seat with 1,887 votes, or 31.2 percent. Lutz placed third with 1,786 votes, or 29.5 percent. Sulka received 3,355 votes, or 94.7 percent.

The town of Bluffton Municipal Election Commission will certify the official results of the election at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

Electing Frazier, a Bluffton native who promised a fresh perspective, was voters’ only way to express their wish for change. Some residents had complained that the council was too cozy, that it voted uniformly and needed a shake up. But it was a close race — only 101 votes separated Frazier and Lutz. Frazier’s win added one more Old Town voice on a council full of them.

Lutz, who lives in Hampton Hall, was the only voice for the new, growing parts of Bluffton at a time the Lowcountry town is trying to manage rampant growth. With his defeat, whole sections of Bluffton are without a representative.

Frazier, 36, is a Hilton Head Middle School teacher and small business owner. The youngest of the three candidates, she promised to focus on Bluffton’s changing identity, over-development, affordable housing, workforce shortages and diversity. Throughout her campaign, she used social media to share her positions, using hashtags #frazier4council and #MakingBlufftonWorkForEveryone.

The daughter of poet laureate Oscar Frazier, for whom Oscar Frazier Park is named, Frazier said she would be a voice for under-represented neighborhoods.

Late Tuesday, reached at her election night party at Red Stripes Caribbean Cuisine and Lounge, Frazier said she would offer a fresh, grounded perspective. Acknowledging that one person isn’t “the end-all, be-all” on the five-member council, she said she would make sure the town worked to bring affordable housing to keep the workforce in town.

How might Bluffton change?

Wood, retired from Palmetto Electric in 2015, won a second term. First elected in 2015, he had moved to Hilton Head in 1979 and to Old Town Bluffton in 1994. He has worked to protect Bluffton’s historical resources and served in various civic capacities, including president of the Rotary Club, founder of the Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival and several town committees.

During his campaign, Wood stressed the need for a larger Town Council — one that would fully represent all areas of the town. Some residents, particularly those who live in the sections experiencing huge residential and commercial growth, say their voices aren’t being heard. Some suggest it’s time for a ward system in which councilmembers represent different areas — similar to how Beaufort County divides into council districts.

Lutz’s campaign centered on more recreation facilities, handicapped-accessible places for children and better sewers and piping. Lutz, elected to council in 2015, will continue to serve through December. He remains on Bluffton’s Americans with Disabilities Act Grievance Committee.

The election of Frazier and the return of Wood and Sulka come as residents have objected to the town’s handling of several large housing developments, including Village Park Homes’ proposal to add 206 homes to the Alston Park neighborhood and Southeastern Development Associates’ plan to change the location of 392 homes.

Bluffton’s building and population boom — resulting in a shortage of affordable housing for the workforce — is well known and controversial. Over the past eight years, Bluffton’s population has jumped 76.9 percent — from 13,060 to 23,097.

As Bluffton continues to grow, and rent gets more expensive, many businesses have seen a shortage of available workers, “ghost applicants,” and resulting longer wait times at restaurants and retail establishments.

The average rent in Bluffton is $1,456 per month, according to the U.S. Census. That’s well above what’s considered “affordable” for a single worker — $850 per month — according to a recent study on workforce housing commissioned by the Hilton Head Island Town Council.

Bluffton is grappling with how to create affordable housing while still controlling growth. The community is divided, with one faction arguing that the only way to progress is to allow growth and development, while another is fighting to maintain the quiet and quaintness that made Bluffton unique.

Bluffton is about 92 percent planned because of seven development agreements that span 32,000 acres. However, only 38 percent of those developments have been built, according to town documents, meaning the town will experience even more density in its future.

Last week, Sulka noted that the town is frustrated with the development agreements, which were made 20 years ago, and is struggling with population outgrowing infrastructure.

The Bluffton Town Council is made up of the mayor and four council members who serve overlapping four-year terms. Although all council members’ votes carry the same weight, the mayor runs council meetings, is the most public face in the community and represents the town in dealings with other governments. Elected town council members are responsible for policy making and the hiring and firing of the town manager. Town Manager Marc Orlando directs the town’s daily operations, gives policy advice and is responsible for preparing the budget. Town elections take place every two years.

A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.
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