When the town of Bluffton was a solid one-square mile – Old Town – everyone inside that square was a town resident.

Everyone not in that square mile lived in Greater Bluffton or the unincorporated parts of Beaufort County.

Now, the population is nearly 900 percent larger and the land area is 54 square miles, yet there are still pockets within those 54 square miles that are not part of the town.

Those pockets are called “doughnut holes” and – unlike the tasty versions that accompany coffee – they come in all sizes and shapes. The holes occur because parts of large tracts of land are sold and developed. When the owners of the tracts petition or ask the town to annex their land, the sold-off portion that belongs to someone else is not included in the annexation.

When annexed, the present and future residents become town residents, get to vote for town issues and elected officials and pay town taxes for which the town extends its services, ordinances and voting privileges.

It makes for light treading, however, when it comes to governing around the doughnut holes.

“It’s hard, and it’s hard with the state annexation laws as they are. It makes it difficult for us to have a way to include everyone,” said Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka. “The majority of the town limits are south of 278. The other communities realize they are in the unincorporated part.”

There are 57 unincorporated neighborhoods or developments in Greater Bluffton. They range in size from large communities such as Belfair Plantation and Moss Creek to smaller communities like The Willows, Sandy Point and Grande Oaks on Buckwalter Parkway.

Annexation requires the property to be connected to the town’s borders. The property owner or at least 75 percent of a development’s residents must initiate and sign a petition requesting the town annex the property.

Title 5, Chapter 3 of the South Carolina Code of Laws outlines the steps and requirements for annexation. The town may not ask the development to request annexation.

“I want people to petition,” Sulka said. “They should be proud of what we’re doing, because the benefits are there and you can get more involved and be on committees and run for council.”

That doesn’t mean the needs of an area are ignored because only a portion is part of the town, Sulka said. For example, the town planned to build sidewalks for Burnt Church Road as a generic roadway improvement in its capital projects plan even though many of the neighborhoods are not part of incorporated Bluffton.

“It was the right thing to do, but the county took it under their wings to provide sidewalks as their project,” she said. It is now on the county’s Capital Project Sales Tax Commission proposals list as part of a $4.6 million Safe Routes to Schools priority.

One problem that exists because of doughnut holes in Bluffton is crime, Sulka said. “People can commit crimes in the incorporated parts of Bluffton and then skip over into the unincorporated parts where our police officers have no jurisdiction,” she said.

That becomes a challenge in training local law enforcement officers.

“When a new officer is hired, one of the most important points their field training officer stresses is knowing what is our jurisdiction and what is the sheriff’s office jurisdiction,” said Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds. “While it can be confusing as to whose jurisdiction is what, our officers and the sheriff’s office deputies have an effective and positive working relationship and back each other when necessary.”

That does mean police protection covers the entire county.

“We have a cooperative relationship with other agencies,” said Capt. Bob Bromage, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. “Clearly, the county sheriff’s office can respond anywhere in the county. We assist Bluffton and Bluffton assists us.”

There are no written agreements backing up that cooperation, but it works. “Under state statute, we are able to respond to emergencies outside our jurisdiction. An example would be the accident on May River Road recently,” said Reynolds. “We were the closest and responded to the accident but it was actually in the county’s jurisdiction. We ended up assisting the sheriff’s office by running traffic control.”

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