Habitat project would deliver on housing issue

A proposed Habitat for Humanity project on Hilton Head Island is a tangible step in a long-standing desire to promote more affordable housing options on the island.

This goal has been talked to death for years with little to show for it. Hilton Head's land prices and the costs to develop there have made it very difficult to do, with a few exceptions.

Still, one of the vision statement's in the town's 2010 comprehensive plan is "creating incentives for redevelopment that encourage diversity in housing cost ... to provide opportunities for the work force to reside on the island."

This proposal would provide such an opportunity through the use of town-owned land.

The town plans to turn over a parcel totaling 14 acres to the Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity in exchange for the nonprofit group's paying to bring water and sewer service and a road to the property. The town purchased the property for about $1 million in 2001; the estimated cost of the utilities and the road is $1 million. Town officials are describing the deal as a trade.

The original reason for buying the property was to offer a neighborhood park in the area, but that idea has fallen by the wayside, largely because of community apathy toward such parks. Why not make some use of the property?

The town's land-buying program allows for more than just parks and open spaces. Under the ordinance creating the real estate transfer fee that pays for these purchases, the town can "acquire already developed land or development rights in order to convert its use to a public use, to restore the property to open space, or to redefine that property in accordance with the town's current comprehensive plan and dispose of it as soon as possible."

Over the years, town has donated land for the Hilton Head Branch of the Beaufort County Library and the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic. The Coastal Discovery Museum operates on town-owned property at Honey Horn for a nominal fee.

The key to addressing the concerns of nearby property owners will lie in the specific site plans for the project. The 10 lots Habitat would get are zoned to allow four homes per acre, but because the land includes wetlands, that density might not hold up.

Property owners in the area should pay attention to and weigh in on the design, density and siting of the homes. There would be opportunity for that in a rezoning process, if that becomes necessary.

Similar Habitat home subdivisions can be found in the Bluffton area. Since 1995, Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity and volunteers have built about 75 homes in southern Beaufort County, including 61 in the Brendan Woods neighborhood in Bluffton. The group is working now with Bluffton to build six homes in old town Bluffton on property the town purchased. In 2009, Beaufort-based Lowcountry Habitat for Humanity dedicated its 30th home, built on land donated by Beaufort County.

There's no reason to dismiss the Hilton Head proposal out of hand due to concerns about an affordable housing project in the area nor due to using town-owned land for something other than parks and open space.