Island set to say yes to redevelopment focus

Some developers have said it's just too difficult to develop or re-develop on Hilton Head Island because of the town's restrictive development rules. Some visitors have said the island is starting to look dated and tired compared to other tourist destinations. And some residents have said that certain island corridors are in need of some serious sprucing up, including Office Park Road, Pineland Station and Northridge Plaza.

It's taken years, but town leaders have deemed these complaints legitimate and are poised to make redevelopment an island priority.

The town's Planning Commission recently approved big changes to the town's land-use management plan that regulates growth and development. Think of the plan as a guide book for developers, laying out the town's rules for zoning, landscaping, lighting and more. It sets the tone for how new development should look, including its size , its location and the number of parking spots.

The updated plan, which we urge Town Council to approve, eases building restrictions and provides more flexibility. The hope is that the changes will encourage more developers to build/revamp existing structures and homeowners to improve their properties.

That's a worthy goal and one we generally support. Regulations written to slow rapid growth in the 1990s now stand in the way of reinvestment by businesses and residents. To stay competitive with other vacation destinations, the town must make it as easier for renovations to take place. This plan seeks to do just that by eliminating unnecessary reviews by boards and commissions, allowing for a broader range of land uses and consolidating zoning districts.

But we, along with other residents, do have some concerns. Redevelopment must be done in a way that does not foresake the look and feel of Hilton Head. Paving paradise should not be the goal.

The ongoing Shelter Cove redevelopment project, for example, has raised some eyebrows based on the sheer size of the project, the cutting down of big trees and an overall look that some feel is not true to Hilton Head. It raises the questions: Is this the future look of the island?

Tom Crews, a Hilton Head architect and chairman of the committee that reworked the plan, said Thursday that Shelter Cove Towne Centre is a special case, not the new norm.

"There aren't many opportunities on the island to redevelop one single, large piece of property owned by a single owner," Crews said.

Shelter Cove owners and the town entered into a development agreement, which resulted in negotiations and compromises on what the project would look like. Such a large scale give-and-take between the town and another developer is unlikely to happen again, Crews predicted.

Instead, residents are likely to see small, single redevelopment projects that happen one business at a time. And those changes should not be startling. Many of the regulations that contribute to the unique Hilton Head look were only slightly tweaked or not changed at all in the plan. They include:

  • Restrictions on outdoor lighting. In pedestrian-friendly areas such as Coligny, street lights will be allowed to cast more light onto sidewalks -- but not even 10 percent more, Crews said. The increase is intended to promote pedestrian-friendly areas. Such a modest increase will also, we hope, increase safety, making bicyclists and walkers easier for drivers to spot
  • Buffers comprised of trees, bushes and other vegetation that separate commercial development from roadways are still part of the plan. But there is more flexibility in how developers can meet the buffering requirement. For example, the revised plan allows for fewer feet of buffer for certain types of development. But in exchange, the vegetation must be more dense. "So essentially, you're still accomplishing the same goal of having a buffer that softens the look of development," Crews said.
  • Low-profile signage is still a requirement of businesses. Residents and visitors will see no changes in this Hilton Head signature.
  • With these pieces still in place, we are cautiously optimistic that the plan will yield much-needed redevelopment that is faithful to the unique Hilton Head look.