Hilton Head Island residents finally have a new mayor -- and another election on tap -- following a closely contested runoff.
Local architect Tom Crews conceded the race Wednesday to sitting Town Councilman Drew Laughlin, who holds a narrow lead of 223 votes.
Seven ballots remain uncounted from Tuesday's balloting -- not enough to affect the outcome -- making Laughlin the apparent winner, said county elections director Scott Marshall.
County election officials will count the fail-safe and provisional ballots at a canvass hearing to certify results at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Beaufort County Board of Elections and Registration office, 15 John Galt Road in Beaufort.
Laughlin collected about 51 percent of the 8,467 ballots cast, compared to Crews' 49 percent, according to unofficial results.
They emerged from a field of seven candidates who competed for the seat in the non-partisan general election Nov. 2. Laughlin got more votes than any other candidate but not a majority, necessitating Tuesday's runoff.
The mayor-elect said he is humbled by the close results and is glad the campaigning is finished.
"I'm tired," said Laughlin said, who praised Crews and the five other candidates for running "effective, positive campaigns" that focused on the issues and refrained from personal attacks.
"This race was very good for Hilton Head. A lot of things were talked about that needed to be talked about and a lot of good ideas shared," he said. "Now, it's time to move forward and put together plans for ensuring the continued economic success and overall well-being of this island."
Crews vowed to help Laughlin on pressing needs, "particularly changing the town's Land Management Ordinance."
Both have said the town's land-use regulations and zoning ordinances deter commercial development. They said the LMO needs to be rewritten to be less complicated and burdensome for residents or businesses that want to make improvements to their properties.
Laughlin also pledged to make town government friendlier to business and to make economic development a top priority, on par with the town's commitment to environmental protection.
Crews, a town planning commissioner, said he plans to remain active in working with town government to shape the future of the island.
"I am not going to go away," he said. "We have a lot of work to do in this town and I look forward to helping us move in that path. I like Drew and respect Drew and look forward to working with him as our new mayor."
Laughlin, an attorney, will likely be sworn in Dec. 7, replacing Tom Peeples, who did not seek re-election after 15 years. Peeples endorsed Laughlin days before the general election.
Turnout in Tuesday's runoff was lower than in the general election, but surprisingly strong at 32 percent of registered voters, Marshall said.
Laughlin said Wednesday he looks forward to meeting with Peeples and town manager Steve Riley to plan a smooth transition. He said he also plans to meet with various community leaders to discuss pressing town issues, specifically securing the future of the Heritage golf tournament.
"I plan to speak with (Heritage Classic Foundation chairman) Simon Fraser about what the town can do to help the Heritage," Laughlin said.
A special election will be held March 8 to fill the remainder of Laughlin's council term, which expires in December 2012. Candidate filing for the seat begins at noon Dec. 24 and ends at noon Jan. 3, Marshall said.
Laughlin's Ward 3 seat covers Spanish Wells, Wexford, Long Cove Club, Indigo Run, Point Comfort and Shipyard.