Hilton Head Island is busy figuring out its future. Again.
Volunteers are poring over the town’s comprehensive plan, updating a document called “Charting the Island’s Future: From Here to 2030.” It’s online, and I encourage you to read all 181 pages of it.
They’re all good.
I’m not as smart as the visionaries.
But here’s what I’d see as the 10 commandments of Hilton Head.
1. Thou shalt not clear-cut. We’re letting that happen now. Trees are what make Beaufort County special, and historian Larry Rowland has proof that it’s been that way through all of recorded history. Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser famously spared the live oak at Harbour Town. He called it the Liberty Oak, and Gregg Russell has entertained families there for four decades.
Less famously, Fraser spared a big live oak in the bank parking lot at Sea Pines Circle. Yet today, the Shelter Cove parking lot and the new town park being built at Coligny Circle look like bombs were dropped, wiping out all vegetation. And a serial developer on the island is clear-cutting large tracts for housing. It was never supposed to happen this way.
2. Thou shalt blend into the landscape. Development here was supposed to hide in the woods. But not anymore. Motels (called homes) are going up everywhere. It must be legal, but why? You can get that stuff anywhere, and that’s what we’re becoming.
Blending homes into the environment here was linked to our very souls.
One of the island’s first landscape architects, the late, great Robert Marvin of Walterboro, said: “I once heard Dr. Karl Menninger, world-renowned Kansas psychiatrist, tell the Aspen International Design Conference on Man’s Environment, that a man’s success and happiness are affected as much by his emotional response to his environment as by his physical comfort in it.
“It was Dr. Menninger’s belief that the answer to mounting problems of mental health lies in the preventive measure of creating living environments which consider the emotional needs of people.”
3. Thou shalt not compromise on buffers. Buffers of trees and underbrush between commercial development and the roadways, and between homes and waterways, are the keys to the kingdom. Hilton Head has a Walmart Supercenter that you can’t see from the forested parking lot, much less the busy street nearby. Where else can you say that? We better keep it that way.
4. Thou shalt protect the water. That means less impervious surfaces (pavement, rooftops and such). Thumb to Page 22 of the comp plan they’re now working on, and you’ll see we’re not doing so well. Research shows that for waterways to remain healthy, impervious surfaces should not exceed 15 percent of land within a watershed. The comp plan says, “The island’s area above the high tide line is equal to 34.5 square miles, approximately 5 square miles of which is covered with impervious surfaces. The island is broken down into 34 watersheds. Of those watersheds, 31 are over 10% and 23 are over 15% impervious surface.”
5. Thou shalt be hospitable. Hilton Head Islanders love to pretend they could get along fine without visitors. That’s not true. We must welcome them with open arms, if for no other reason than this: Without tourists, we have no beach. The beach preservation fee tacked onto their overnight lodging bills pays for beach nourishment and improvements to public beach access.
And then there are the arts. The comp plan says, “In the past five years, between 42% and 48% (a total of $5,371,079) of the town’s accommodation tax money has gone to support arts and cultural groups on the island.” Every penny is from visitors.
People like to say “residents first.” It’s a point well taken, but without visitors, there would be precious few residents.
We owe visitors a smile, but also better public beach access, more bike pathways and safer crosswalks.
6. Thou shalt protect wildlife. Keep your distance because, yes, they were here first. And it is in the DNA of Hilton Head to observe, appreciate and protect wildlife. The island had South Carolina’s first Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The first annual sighting of a painted bunting was front-page news. Alligators, deer, snakes, rabbits, eagles, osprey, sharks, herons, cobia, migrating shorebirds, sea turtles. We are their guardians. Hilton Head must be their champions.
7. Thou shalt not destroy, forget or rewrite history. Since the first bridge opened in 1956, everyone to cross it somehow thought island history began at that moment. But the story of Hilton Head, and all of Beaufort County, is unique and crucial to understanding America, not to mention ourselves. It means a look into the ugliness of slavery and the beauty of the Gullah people who survived it.
8. Thou shalt have no ugly signs. Signs are a scourge upon the Earth, but not on Hilton Head. We must keep it this way: No internally lit signs, no caricatures on signs, muted colors. The old mantra should never die: “You can have a sign on Hilton Head as long as no one can read it.” Everyone who visits the island remarks on how nice it is to be free from blaring, obnoxious signs.
9. Thou shalt be dark. Hilton Head needs its darkness, or carefully controlled lighting. It’s not only to protect baby sea turtles, but to set itself apart from ugly America.
10. Thou shalt not pretend to be Atlanta. Let them have the congested highway knot called Spaghetti Junction. Let them have the huge airport. Let them have all the franchises (yes, even Trader Joe’s) at every exit. Let them have the manicured lawns. Let them have ugly. Let us be a small town with class, hospitality and beauty. Let us be an environment that considers the emotional needs of people.