Bluffton must not let heritage slip away

Bluffton officials are right to review the rules for the town's Historic Preservation District. They must make sure there aren't any holes in the safety net for irreplaceable structures.

This comes after the town's Historic Preservation Commission approved the demolition of the 104-year-old Graves House, which is listed as a contributing structure in the town's National Register District.

Its owner maintained that it was too costly to restore. The United Methodist Church next door plans to build a replica replacement to house offices and church programs. The promise is to "sympathetically dismantle" the house and use salvaged material in the new structure.

Replicas are not historic. They might blend in, but it is not the same. And historic structures once lost cannot be replaced.

There were several troubling aspects of the May 2 commission meeting that resulted in the decision to allow demolition.

First was the lack of clarity on the issue of whether a replica home would still be a contributing structure. This should have been determined before the meeting started and communicated to commission members. It shouldn't be subject to debate, especially at a meeting deciding the structure's fate.

Second was the lack of an independent assessment of the building. The commission should not rely solely on reports from those hired by the very people who want to tear down a structure. And commission members should not be swayed by threats of what "might" happen should applicants not get their way.

Town officials should look at developing a list of approved experts for assessing structures and their rehabilitation potential and costs. The applicant could pay for their services. This strategy has been used successfully to assess traffic impact as a result of new development; surely, it can be used to save historic buildings.

The town doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. Historic districts have been operating for many years. Criteria have been established for designating a district and maintaining that designation.

"Bluffton is growing, and we have a lot of things to tend to in the newer sections, but by God we better take care of what we've got," said Bluffton Town Councilman Ted Huffman.

He's right. Bluffton has made protecting and preserving Old Town Bluffton a priority. That's as it should be. Charleston, Savannah and Beaufort attest to the economic value of a vibrant, well preserved historic district.

Town officials are learning the cost of not protecting and preserving the May River.

They should not put the historic district at risk, too.