It’s baffling a lot of you, and trust me, I get it.
Many of you are used to seeing town limits signs. To you, a town is a big, contiguous shape on a map.
It’s a common newbie refrain: “So if I’m signing on for the feeling I get when I’m in Bluffton, how do I not actually live in the Town of Bluffton?”
The feels and the map used to match up. The original town limits formed in 1852 stayed the same for 125 years. Up until 1998, the Town of Bluffton was a one-square-mile, 500-resident gelatinous blob and everyone inside the blob was a town resident.
Everything outside of it was unincorporated and part of Beaufort County.
Del Webb changed all that in the early 1990s. The corporation had visions of duplicating the success of Del Webb’s Sun City Arizona concept along U.S. 278 and so his company made a deal for 5,100 acres with Beaufort County. Emmett McCracken was part of the County Council that signed the epic agreement and served on Town Council as well during the formative years of “New Bluffton.”
“I went to the original Sun City in Tucson and we liked what we saw,” said McCracken, who voted in favor of the December 1993 deal. “By the time I left Council in 1999, they were moving dirt and building model homes.”
That deal attracted a lot of corporate eyeballs belonging to folks who might have vacationed on Hilton Head Island but never left the highway on their way to their getaway.
“Suddenly car dealers were wanting to move from Savannah or Hilton Head, Lowe’s wanted in and developers and builders like D.R. Horton were salivating over all this land off the highway,” McCracken said.
Union Camp Corporation was also seeing dollar signs. For years, the pulp king used a 19,000-acre piece of wooded property leading to the New River as a corporate hunting retreat. When they decided to sell what became Palmetto Bluff as Y2K approached, little ol’ Bluffton had a big decision to make.
“We knew this train of change was rolling through the county, so then it became ‘Do you want to be in the caboose getting whipsawed or do you want to be the conductor and the engine and have a say,’” McCracken said of the vote to annex Palmetto Bluff into the town of Bluffton in November 1998. It was the equivalent of a no-see-um gulping down an ostrich for dinner.
Even then, all the land was connected. The deal actually helped solve one blip in the blob, as Union Camp sold a plot of land to the town near what is now Oscar Frazier Park.
The Bluff decision and the Master Planning that went with it opened the flood gates for development and for annexation that has led to 44 approved land additions in the past 24 years. The Buckwalter Tract annexation in April 2000 was the first plot to break off from the blob. Most developers opted to apply to be annexed, which gave potential residents town police services, trash and recycling pickup, the ability to vote in town elections and to run for town office, boards and commissions.
“There’s a big 600-acre square in the middle of that Buckwalter tract that became the first true donut hole,” McCracken said. “Doug Robertson and his wife passed on the annexation wave in 2001-02, opted to save on a layer of taxes.”
That led to the plethora of donut holes in Bluffton. On one side of Buckwalter Parkway, Pine Ridge, Pinecrest, Shell Hall and The Townes are in the town, but Woodbridge is out. Across the road, Barton’s Run is out, The Farm and Hampton Hall are in, but Edgewood and Sandy Pointe are out.
The roadway divides are similar all around a town that is now 54 square miles wide with weird polygons of out-of-towners from Avalon Shores to Westbury Park. Island West is a decagon of non-conformity along Hwy. 278, cutting into the green of the annexation map.
Rose Hill and Belfair are epic outsider blobs, titans in the battle of borders but in the grand scheme of mappable sexiness, a pair of plain Janes.
But if you feast your eyes toward May River Road and tilt your head just right looking at the chart, you’ll see a mass of unincorporated neighborhoods that look like a majestic greyhound outrunning the greed of governmental taxation.
(OK, I admit, I’ve spent way too much time looking at this annexation PDF and may have imbibed a spirit or two during my research.)
Smack dab in the middle of the map, you have the truest “donut hole” of them all, a square-ish island surrounded by a sea of green townie land. It almost feels like the town’s infamous slogan was crafted for Woodbridge residents as a consolation prize.
The Town of Bluffton is truly a state of mind for them, because it’s certainly not on their deed. It is the epicenter of our state of confusion, the union steward of the 57 neighborhoods on the outside looking in of the 34 official residential destinations.
They are the Norma Raes voicing their frustration on social media. Why won’t you let us in, Mayor Lisa Sulka? What did we do to be shunned?
But this is not on Sulka. This is state law saying landowners need to petition to be included. That’s far easier when there’s one landowner, like Union Camp. Neighborhoods like Woodbridge need 75% of the landowners totaling more than 75% of the collective land to approve a petition.
Try getting three out of four people to even agree that Big Bird is yellow these days.
And then there’s the logistical reality of annexation for the town itself. As late as 2016, Sulka was quoted in these pages saying, “I want people to petition.”
When I talked to her last week, that tone was markedly different. In the boom years like 2005 and 2015, the influx of tax riches helped the town build up its infrastructure and its staff to stay ahead of the madness of migration.
The 2020 census puts us at 27,716 official residents, more than double the 12,530 folks officially counted in 2010 – and that doesn’t include the otherworldly influx of 2021. So, in 2022, the sad truth is that annexation is a losing proposition for the town.
“To annex now, it’s costing us more to provide services than we take in,” Sulka said. “It has to make sense to annex just residential, and right now, it doesn’t pay the bill.”
There was a time when officials would have loved to include a place like Windy Lakes in the town, but the residents opted out and are the lone holdout in the Simmonsville/Buck Island corridor. As the town has added sewer service along Simmonsville, many in Windy Lakes now want to be included.
For now, they have to call Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office first when in need of badged assistance. Most of their governmental services come from the county.
If there’s a fire, the “out-of-towners” call the Bluffton Township Fire District, which was created by County Council in 1978 to service everyone south of the Broad River except the Town of Hilton Head and Daufuskie.
Fire protection is just the tip of the spear when it comes to perplexing rabbit holes. I live in Cypress Ridge, which is part of the town but comes with an Okatie mailing address. At least I know I’m in Beaufort County. My in-laws in the new side of Sun City have an Okatie address, but their title says they’re in Hardeeville and live in Jasper County.
I see all y’all as Bluffton. That’s easy for me to say from the inside. Truth is, we’re all the same on the ever-more congested roadways.
“I say to my wife, ‘Where are all the cars coming from?’,” said elder statesman McCracken. “I look in the mirror and I realize I was part of creating this master plan.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.