A couple of skateboarders enjoy the skate park at Buckwalter. The Buckwalter Recreation Center was built with funds from Beaufort County impact fees. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Bluffton town council voted at its April 12 meeting to table any decisions on agreeing to Beaufort County Council’s proposed impact fee schedule.

The outcome follows long-term discussions between Bluffton, other municipalities, and Beaufort County Council about the process to adopt new impact fees for schools and EMS, and renew or update the existing fee schedule that has not changed since it was implemented in 1999.

“The goal of impact fees is to allow for growth and development to pay for capital improvements that result from added population,” said Bluffton Town Manager Stephen Steese. “These fees can pay for road infrastructure, parks, fire stations, etc. The county has used these funds to pay for infrastructure improvements in the town as well as throughout the county. There is no guarantee the funds generated in the town are used in the town.”

On a June 2017 chart that highlighted impact fees from 2000-2017, Parks and Leisure Services received $12,462,186 for projects at the Bluffton Gym, M.C. Riley field lighting, the Buckwalter Park, and other PALS projects around the county. The balance of $3,807,947 was obligated for future debt service payments connected with the Buckwalter Recreation Center Expansion.

Beaufort County stated earlier this year that it will eliminate all of the existing impact fees, and cease efforts to adopt school and EMS fees if Bluffton and the other county municipalities, including Hardeeville, do not agree to the county’s proposed schedule.

“Lack of participation and cooperation by Hilton Head, Bluffton, Beaufort, and Port Royal has led Beaufort County Council to consider eliminating all existing impact fees and abandon its efforts to adopt school and EMS impact fees,” said County Council Chairman Joe Passiment.

The county has already taken steps to make that happen, and at its April 11 council meeting held a second reading of an ordinance to terminate all fees. A third and final reading, scheduled for April 25, will do just that if passed.

Bluffton wants further discussion.

“In the way the ordinance states, the county is the one who sets the impact fee, period, and they really don’t need our say on it. We just say ‘We will collect it, or we won’t collect it. And by the way, these are some items we really like for you to address,’” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said during the meeting.

Bluffton was seeking an agreement to not levy impact fees on developers that built affordable housing, and town attorney Terry Finger had revised the draft intergovernmental agreement (IGA) to include the town’s interest.

“We always wanted questions answered on the affordable housing, because we just don’t know,” Sulka said.

Attorney Richardson Bruce, who was filling in for Finger, said from a legal perspective it made little sense to bring a new proposal to the council at this time when the county was already in the process of eliminating all of the impact fees.

“That’s not to say that the county is going to go ahead and revoke all impact fees on third reading. We’re not really sure what the county’s next steps will be,” said Bruce. “We would recommend to [this] council … to allow us to continue discussions with the county about the impact fee, continue to discuss the possibility of streamlining this process for the county, continue to have discussions about some of the affordable housing concerns the council has raised, and some of the other concerns about the impact fee.”

Superintendent of Schools Frank Rodriguez said that he and his staff have made presentations to both Bluffton and Hilton Head town councils on the value of impact fees.

“An impact fee is a one-time payment for growth-related infrastructure. It represents new growth’s proportionate share of capital facility needs,” he said. “Impact fees help to lower the borrowing of funds on upcoming projects needed due to the expansion.”

Referendums, such as the $345 million bond passed by voters in November 2019, update, expand and improve the educational experiences of the county’s 22,000-plus students. Impact fees would offset some of that cost.

“The only thing I would add just for the record is we’ve reached out to the county, and they’re working with all the mayors and managers to find a time that we can all get together. We’re hoping to do that next week,” said Steese. “So we just wanted everybody to know that we are still working together with the county as was stated earlier, and we’re hoping to continue to move that forward as this discussion takes place.”

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