Bluffton right to move slowly on annexation

Bluffton Town Council was right to put off a vote on annexing 142 acres along the troubled Okatie River.

The council wants answers to questions about specific development plans for the property, traffic management and money that would come to the town from the developer. Its cautious approach to this proposal is welcome.

But the bigger question is how developing this property fits into the multi-million-dollar effort that has been put into restoring the river's water quality, already degraded by building in the area.

Graves family members who own the property are proposing to build 550 residential units, up from the 47 homes allowed under current county zoning, and 600,000 square feet of commercial space, up from about433,000 square feet allowed now. Bluffton Town Councilman Michael Raymond on Tuesday objected to the annexation, saying he was concerned it was zoning shopping.

Getting the questions raised at Tuesday's meeting answered before any negotiations begin would be a refreshing change. Despite assurances to the contrary, issues raised during this process seldom, if ever, derail a deal once negotiations start.

Proposed development in such an environmentally sensitive area magnifies the concerns. The Okatie River has been designated impaired since 1995 because of high fecal coliform counts attributed largely to increased development in the area.

A federal study released last year states that the amount of pollutants already reaching the Okatie need to be reduced 51 percent to restore the river's water quality.

The Coastal Conservation League has estimated that 15 percent of the river's watershed is covered by hard surfaces. Research by scientists the town looks to frequently for expert guidance has found that if 10 percent of land is covered by hard surfaces, oystering in the headwaters of tidal creeks is likely to be prohibited. If 30 percent or more of the land is covered, it brings changes that can't be turned back completely.

Bluffton has yet to finalize its plan for restoring water quality in the May River.

Andrea Malloy of the Coastal Conservation League said the town should wait for recommendations from its May River advisory committee before approving new development in the Okatie watershed. The problems facing the two rivers are very similar.

The league has developed a plan that calls for transferring development rights out of the sensitive headwaters areas, with compensation to the landowner, and increasing development rights in areas more suitable for development.

We'd also like to see Bluffton follow the lead of Beaufort County and strengthen even more its rules to protect local waterways from harmful stormwater runoff.

The county has established rules that call for the volume of runoff after development not to exceed the volume of runoff before development. The county on Monday gave final approval to an ordinance that tightens stormwater controls on lots that have been approved for development but not yet built on. It already had established rules for undeveloped properties. Next will be retrofitting existing stormwater systems in already developed areas to correct problems that have been identified.

It doesn't matter whether the Graves property is inside or outside the town limits of Bluffton. What matters is what happens on the property and how that fits into the cumulative impact on the Okatie's water quality and efforts to return the river to good health.