When a behemoth development is proposed next to your neighborhood, your sense of a cozy hometown might seem on the brink of extinction.
Opponents of the Hilton Head National development project see the plan as presented to the Beaufort County Council as a threat to their beloved Bluffton State of Mind.
The developers, however, hope to create an even greater sense of hometown familiarity.
“It is going to be a multi-faceted development, no doubt,” said Bill Palmer, president of Scratch Golf LLC, which owns the golf course. “It’s going to be something that I hope the community in a couple or five years from now is going to say, ‘Wow, this is something really special’.”
The latest project application for the 300 rural-zoned acres on the Bluffton Parkway includes 300 apartment units, 300 single-family homes, 500 hotel rooms, a 400-bed assisted living facility, a 1,500-seat performing arts center, two schools, an adventure park, 125,000 square feet of office space, 400,000 square feet of retail and a 100,000-square-foot convention center.
However, it is unlikely that the project will come close to those numbers and will instead become different as the project proceeds.
“The plan that we have on paper, some of that may happen. Or none of it may happen. We don’t know for sure what is actually going to go on there,” Palmer said. “What we’re trying to do is not get our hands tied or commit to something that 10 years from now if the entire needs of this community change, we don’t have to do what we said we are going to do today. We can move with the market.”
Then how did the requested zoning changes materialize and why are those various entities on the proposal?
In 1997, the Hilton Head National golf course property, which was built in 1988-89, was listed under future land use as a transitional area – specifically as a village.
The county had originally zoned the property as rural. Although houses were permitted on the course in accordance with the zoning, the owners decided to leave it completely green, with the allowed exception of the golf club house and related buildings.
Although the course is still profitable and popular, the decline of golf in general and the loss of nine of the course’s original 27 holes due to the Bluffton Parkway expansion has affected the course in recent years, Palmer said.
According to the County Development Code (CDC), adopted three years ago in place of the previous process of Planned Unit Development, a village designation is defined as clusters of residential neighborhoods with enough density to support a mixed-use environment. Habersham near Beaufort is an example of a village.
The new code – a whopping 900 pages of requirements – made life both easier and more difficult for Michael Kronimus, president of KRA Architecture + Design, and others seeking to develop properties within Beaufort County. He submitted the applications and is the architect and land planner for the Hilton Head National project.
“It (the CDC) actually spells out where your sidewalks go, your tree height, your roof line,” he said. “Everything is spelled out to the ‘T’ in that book. This is very, very detailed. In the PUD, I could do anything and you wouldn’t be able to fight me.”
Kronimus pointed out that the developer’s plans were first submitted in September 2013 as a PUD, but were denied because the county was in the process of implementing the CDC, a form-based code. The county required that the application be resubmitted once the CDC was adopted, which occurred in late 2014.
“The Community Development Code was an improvement over the PUD option, it provided a clear path to follow by being very prescriptive of what the county was saying it wanted in the way of development,” said Paul Sommerville, Beaufort County Council chairman. “By Dec. 8, 2014, the CDC was already adopted and the PUD went away as an option under the CDC. By then the developer had invested time, energy and money in anticipation of the CDC becoming the new zoning law in Beaufort County.”
For the new application, Kronimus said the county asked him “to throw something on the paper to give an idea of the future of what this will be” and after that to run a traffic study to make sure that what was being asked for could actually be approved.
“So, I said, I have to do a hypothetical design of a hypothetical project of something I don’t even know what it may be in the future?” he asked.
The answer was yes.
Three years, one feasibility study, three community charrettes and countless hours poring over the County Development Code later, the developers had a definitive “hypothetical” proposal that would satisfy the county’s request to put something on paper.
Charrettes were held with residents from Heritage Lakes, Old Town and Moss Creek. Kronimus worked with county staff to move the pieces around and put the roads in, telling those who attended what they wanted to do.
“They gave very good input and we actually moved some of our zones because of that,” Kronimus said. For example, he said, “We moved the hotel that was right up against Heritage Lakes. They said ‘we don’t want that, we want residential.'”
The year-long feasibility study was led by John Salazar, director of the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute, University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Upon the recommendations of what the study said would be successful, Kronimus and the developers incorporated those pieces into their plan.
“What you have is a true village type. It was a place where you have a mixed use – commercial shopping, residential, entertainment center, green space, open space, sidewalks, walking trail, nature trail. There is nothing else like this in the county,” he said.
“When a lot of people asked why we picked these things, well, we had to put something on paper. There’s not one client, not one tenant signed up,” Kronimus added. “There’s nobody coming to us saying we want in and we’re going to put a casino, which I love hearing because it’s illegal.”
Palmer said they have not decided on what will go in first and even then, everything after that is dependent upon when each phase finishes and what the county environment, particularly traffic, is like.
Both Palmer and Kronimus said that with the completion of each phase, the developers have to go back to square one by submitting a new traffic impact statement (the two they were required to submit for the basic application cost $30,000 each), new economic and environmental impact statements and other permits.
“A lot of people think we’re changing the world and we’re asking for things we shouldn’t, but we’ve followed the code exactly,” Palmer said. “We’ve followed the traffic, we’ve followed the environmental, we’ve followed the wetlands, the standards, the stormwater. We’ve not asked for anything beyond that.”
As to what will be first if and when the project starts, he was uncertain.
“Right today we can’t say 100 percent – probably something commercial, something that would be the center point of the development. We have to be very careful how we do this,” Palmer added. “In the very beginning if we do something bad or something that doesn’t fit in with the community it would taint the whole project.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.