Nature lovers quietly gather around the pond at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge to observe roosting birds. Environmental protection is a primary focus of the Beaufort County comprehensive plan. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Beaufort County has drafted its 2040 comprehensive plan, and the document is now available on the county’s web site for review and public comments.

Robert Merchant, acting director of planning and zoning, said the plan is based on what the citizens decide they value, and the plans needed to protect those things.

“It is something that should be of interest to all people who live here, and all people who travel here and visit this region, because we’re responsible for keeping this treasure for people who come from other areas, to see the marsh and shrimp boats in the water,” Merchant said, “and we have an obligation to provide protection for the things that are the most valuable to this region.”

A comprehensive plan is required by the state of South Carolina for all local communities that have zoning. Input and comments concerning the contents of the draft plan are required by May 7.

“We start off with talking about natural resources, past efforts to protect natural resources, and where we see the biggest challenges in the future. A new buzz word in planning is ‘resilience planning,’ and so this plan really focuses on those issues, tries to identify the threats, and takes actions to prepare for them,” said Merchant.

Another feature is cultural resource and that covers everything from historic preservation to preserving active farming and fishing. There are still active farms on St. Helena and in the northern part of the county around Sheldon, as well as people who do small farming.

“The county worked very closely with St. Helena Island and the Gullah Geechee people, and we are taking measures to help that culture thrive in the county,” Merchant said. “People come here expecting to see something different, and the more we lose those things that make us unique, the more we are then like any other coastal community.”

Merchant said the department is truly interested in what citizens have to say. “We’re going to be looking at every comment over the next two months and making recommendations. The planning commission will be helping us with that process and then we’ll come up with a document that takes in all those comments,” he said.

The state requires certain chapter topics to 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.). 

The draft is the result of a year of data collection, analysis, review, discussion and revision by the Beaufort County Planning Commission.

“I always look at the comp plan as being at a minimum a vision for the community, but it is also important to have a document that provides a direction you want to go in,” Merchant said.

On the county website are three related documents. The draft Envision Beaufort County 2040 Comprehensive Plan gives deals with policies and actions. A county atlas provides snapshots of several of the chapters in the plan. The third document is the action plan play book – a checklist for all of the actionable items in the plan.

The primary focus is on things like land use, environmental protection, and how to protect cultural resources.

“It also looks at economic development or the lack of. And how to provide affordable housing,” he said. “We see that as something necessary for a sustainable economy, that the people who work here can afford to live here.”

The plan governs unincorporated Beaufort County – those swaths of land that are not part of the county’s municipalities. While there is interest in what happens in towns such as Bluffton, the county’s impact is where it has jurisdiction, whereas the incorporated towns have the tools to affect their own future developments and policy decisions, Merchant said.

“We’re still trying to prioritize those plans, but it covers the time frame, how much it’s going to cost and who should do it – which department, is the county working with state, is it county only,” he said. “We’re trying to be specific with who is the one to accomplish the action.”

Merchant said it is important for citizens to get involved with planning for the future.

“One of the things that we’re finding is what usually gets people concerned about the local community is when something happens in that local community. They see a forested area cleared, or they see a development they don’t like,” said Merchant. “We have had tree preservation requirements for a long time, and probably what people are not seeing is what things would look like if we had not done anything. If they got more involved in the local community, they would have a better idea of what measures have been taken.”

To review the comprehensive plan as well the playbook and atlas, visit envisionbeaufortcounty.com. To provide comments and suggestions, email robm@bcgov.net or by mail to Beaufort County Planning and Zoning Department, P.O. Drawer 1228, Beaufort, SC, 29901, no later than May 7. For more information, call the Beaufort County Planning and Zoning Department at 843-255-2140.

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