Visitors make their way down the main walkway at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, located between the bridges to Hilton Head Island, to explore flora and fauna. One of the concepts in Envision Beaufort County 2040 is to promote and preserve that which is “Unique to Place” and makes the area so special. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Beaufort County’s newest comprehensive plan, Envision Beaufort 2040, contains more than 189 pages of major topics, maps and charts, and detailed descriptions of future plans for the county.

More importantly, it also contains many of the ideas and suggestions submitted by more than 1,400 residents.

When the county began in March 2020 the state-required process of updating its vision, the Beaufort County Planning Department sought input from those who would be impacted now and for the next 20 years: its nearly 200,000 residents. That input was gathered through research, stakeholder meetings, analysis, surveys, written submissions, and public workshops on open space, the economy and growth.

The result is the document that was presented to county council Oct. 11 for a first reading and approval. Envision Beaufort 2040 will have two more readings before it is adopted and implemented. State law requires that any jurisdiction that has zoning must generate and regularly update a comprehensive plan with goals for the future and a plan of action to meet those goals.

“Items – strategies and actions – were generally added to the plan as the result of public comment,” said Robert Merchant, Beaufort County director of planning and zoning.

Nearly 60 pages of the plan are a matrix of action items that cover points made under each of the topics. The state requires certain chapter topics be included in any comprehensive plan. The chapter themes in Beaufort’s plan include: natural environment, cultural, mobility, economy, housing, community facilities (public utilities, energy audit, infrastructure, etc.), and the built environment (PUDs, subdivisions, etc.). 

Because of the detailed planning and numerous goals, not everything can be done at once. Some projects will take several months, most at least three years. There are, however, some actions that can be taken immediately or are already under way.

“Some of the recommendations in the plan involve assessing current requirements within our Community Development Code (CDC) for improvement, such as how we might amend the CDC to ensure our code isn’t putting up barriers for workforce housing (Action Item H 2.1.), or reassessing where short-term rentals are allowed (H 3.5.),” Merchant said.

The original draft of the chapter on housing included coordinating policies and programs with municipalities and neighboring counties. One of the major changes considers reestablishing the Affordable Housing Task Force to serve as a public advisory committee to the housing coordinator.

The Mobility Chapter included a few major changes from the original draft, such as adopting a bike plan. “We’re also already initiating the steps needed to adopt the Beaufort County Connects Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan 2021 (M 5.4.),” the director said.

Other recommendations included identifying opportunities and incentives for improving marine access and transport services such as ferries and water taxis; and a recommendation to support improvements to existing rail infrastructure and expansion of passenger service serving the county.

“These types of recommendations can be quickly initiated, as well as others, like developing informational brochures for small rural landowners on how they can subdivide and transfer land (C 6.2.), and for installing tidal gauges throughout the County (NE 3.1.),” said Merchant.

Three concepts are integrated into each of the chapters: Resilient – the ability to “adapt and thrive in a dynamic coastal environment and changing economy;” Equitable – “ensuring all neighbors have fair and equal access to safety, quality of life, health, amenity and opportunity and unique to place;” and Unique to Place – “preserving and promoting a built and natural environment that is of the Lowcountry way of life.”

The Culture Chapter continued and strengthened previous policies and programs related to preserving rural landscapes and a rural way of life, protection of historic and archeological resources, and protection of the Gullah/Geechee culture. Among the major changes are recommendations to consider additional protections for historic cemeteries, and support and expansion of programs addressing heirs’ property.

Also within each chapter, strategies and action items are identified as to which concept is fulfilled. For instance, in the Community Facilities chapter, expanding the use of “green” building practices to reduce consumption of natural resources falls under Resilient, while expanding water and sewer services to areas in need is an Equitable concept.

Merchant said that the county’s staff will report annually on implementation of the plan to the Planning Commission.

“Staff across various departments will be the primary points of initiation for most of the items in the CP to be completed,” he said. “The 2040 Action Plan Playbook provides a matrix of each of the recommendations and points to who would implement them.”

Comprehensive plans can be reviewed as needed or re-evaluated every five years, and updated every 10 years. In the county’s press release announcing the plan was ready for council, it was noted that “the final version of the comprehensive plan does not change the fundamental concept. The public feedback helped make a stronger document, especially in the rural areas of the county, by providing better details that addressed citizens’ concerns.”

The final vote on the plan will be Nov. 8.

For more information, visit envisionbeaufortcounty.com. Printed copies will be available at all the Beaufort County Library branches. 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.