The first core community in the New Riverside corridor of Bluffton is nearing buildout, but not without one final hiccup causing major headaches for residents and the developer.
The Mill Creek and Cypress Ridge development is far different than its original plan when the first homeowners settled in their new homes in 2005. Now, as the final bit of building is set to occur in the now-1,400-home community, a dispute over how the final bit of land should be built out has taken a unique and controversial turn.
Earlier this year, the builder, D.R. Horton, converted the final 7.25 acres of buildout that was originally slated as commercial to a plan for 29 townhome units.
But just how those townhomes are built out is the sticking point.
To build as Horton intends, with back-alley driveways in the acreage near the Mill Creek Boulevard entrance to the community, the builder needed permission from the Bluffton Planning Commission to add the back alleys and reconfigure the existing street network around the impacted area.
At its Aug. 24 meeting, the Planning Commission denied Horton’s application for the revision to the neighborhood street network – citing, in part, the initial intent for the community to be a mixed-use community.
Through the years, Mill Creek has turned from the “live-work-play” concept that involved a strong commercial component to a near-exclusive residential community – even cancelling plans for an intended golf course near the Four Seasons community portion of the Jones Tract.
Former Bluffton mayor Hank Johnston, who helped push through the Mill Creek master plan, was adamant that there be a commercial core to the community with homes flowing out to the edges of the property around the commercial spaces.
Seventeen years later, the growth of Bluffton has changed dramatically, as many of the planned commercial developments throughout town have been converted to residential space to accommodate the waves of population growth. After 17 years of trying to fill the still-existing commercial spaces left in Mill Creek, Horton officials conceded that without commercial developer interest, they needed to convert the acreage to residential to finish buildout.
Residents are anxious for buildout to be completed, as it would finally allow them to take over control of the property owners association from the builder and have overall say on how the community is maintained and governed.
After nearly a decade of contention over finally ceding the POA to the residents, the two sides find themselves in rare agreement.
The Town Council heard pleas from both residents and the developer’s representative, Thomas and Hutton, to overturn the Planning Commission denial.
Without that reversal, Horton will be forced to follow a buildout of their townhomes with both driveways and curbs off the main Mill Creek Boulevard entrance and a handful of townhomes built off the roundabout entrance on Argo Lane.
About 40 residents came to a Sept. 6 meeting with Horton and Thomas and Hutton officials to voice concern over that plan. A handful of those residents showed up at the Sept. 13 Town Council meeting to endorse the revised plan and also ask that the Planning Commission decision be reversed.
Mill Creek resident Valerie Bridges spoke of the potential for Horton to re-convert the space to commercial if their plan is denied. There is an existing road that connects Four Seasons to Mill Creek, intended so that Four Seasons residents would not clog S.C. 170 getting over to the Mill Creek commercial area.
Traffic studies have shown that commercial buildout would increase internal residential street traffic from 17 to 110 trips per hour through the neighborhood.
“I am concerned that if any of this space remains commercial, we will have debacle that is now Seagrass Station, where they have a pay-by-the-week hotel.” Bridges said.
Argo Circle resident Mike Dolan did not want the townhomes in his backyard.
“We don’t want to have to look at the seven townhome units. It would destroy green space which is already compromised by all the overbuilding,” Nolan said.
Fourteen-year Mill Creek resident Michael Beaumont had a different tact in attempting to connect with council members in his three-minute allotted comment time.
He talked of serving and protecting his three now-grown daughters – oftentimes through use of parental authority – as they grew up.
“We do not have the authority to do anything about what’s in front of us, but you do. You have an opportunity to step in and help us here,” Beaumont said.
Thomas and Hutton representative Michael Hughes disagreed with the Planning Commission’s criteria for denial, but the concept that Horton had already converted the space from commercial to residential further confused council members on what they were deciding.
“I’m more confused than when we started here,” council member Dan Wood said at one point, echoing a sentiment shared by all in attendance.
Mayor Lisa Sulka said that the ultimate losers in denying the application are Mill Creek and Cypress Ridge residents. She repeated a sentiment she has shared before concerning master plan decisions approved by past councils.
“That council should sit at our council today and see what some of these decisions have cost all of us,” said Sulka, who proposed a tabling of the council vote and urged the developer and town officials to meet with residents one more time to iron out a compromise.
A vast majority of residents who spoke up at the initial meeting and who have voiced opinion on the community’s Facebook page have said if townhomes are inevitable, at least build them with the back alleys and no driveways facing the busy Mill Creek Boulevard.
That community meeting will take place this week, with the hopes that a final decision on the fate of the final patch of Mill Creek buildout will be decided at the Oct. 11 Town Council meeting.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.