Bluffton must get right its plan to restore river

Bluffton has developed a hundred-plus-page "action plan" for restoring the May River to good health and protecting it from further harm.

It is overhauling its development and zoning standards and touts the new ordinance as a "tool based on watershed protection." Both are a result of years of study, hard work and a lot of money.

But it could all be for naught if the town doesn't get one particular element right -- how much and where new construction is allowed in the coming years.

Town officials have long acknowledged the impact of hard surfaces -- rooftops, roads, parking lots, driveways -- on sensitive estuarine systems, such as the May River. When the ratio of hard surfaces reaches 10 percent, these waterways degrade.

That precept is at the heart of a push by Dr. Fred Holland and the Coastal Conservation League to include the transfer of development rights in the plan to help the river.

A meeting to get more public input was postponed for several weeks to allow time to incorporate the idea into the river plan. The public can weigh in at a meeting Wednesday, and we hope it's standing room only at the town Law Enforcement Center, where it will take place. It never hurts to remind town officials how important it is to get this right.

The changes to incorporate transfer of development rights into the river action plan were not available Monday, so it's not clear how town officials see this program working within the context of the plan.

More than 19,000 housing units have been permitted but not yet built in the May River watershed.

"When these units are constructed," writes Holland, retired director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hollings Marine Laboratory, "less than 1 percent of the Stoney Creek and Rose Dhu Creek sub-watersheds will be forested, and impervious cover levels will have increased to 14 percent for the Stoney Creek sub-watershed and 20 percent for the Rose Dhu Creek sub-watershed."

As it stands now, four miles, or about half the river, including the Stoney Creek and Rose Dhu areas, are already closed to shellfish harvesting because of high fecal coliform counts, an indicator of pollution.

The town has a transfer of development rights ordinance and a density rights "bank" to aid in transfers. But the ordinance has been used only a few times, most notably to transfer housing units to Buckwalter Place, the impetus for creating the ordinance in 2007. The new development standards ordinance is to include incentives for sellers in "sending zones" and buyers in "receiving zones."

The idea is to get owners of property in critical areas of the watershed to sell their development rights for use in an area where development is preferable. The program is voluntary, and even its proponents recognize that it takes willing property owners to make it happen.

And if they're not willing? The town must be willing to go further. It must actively push these deals. It must be ready to purchase key pieces of property, and it must be willing to reopen the development agreements that include these thousands of planned but not yet built units and make the changes needed to protect local waterways.

That's in addition to the steps it must take to correct existing problems. We're already paying a high price for not getting this right. We have to get smarter about where and how we build in the Lowcountry if we truly want to protect our rivers.