Beaufort County Council approves Bluffton Gateway plans


Beaufort County Council believes issues with stormwater runoff in a developer's plan to build a large shopping center in greater Bluffton have been resolved and the plan should move forward.

The council voted Monday night to approve a development agreement with Atlanta-based Jaz Development LLC to put two large retailers on 66 acres at the corner of U.S. 278 and S.C. 46.

The densely wooded, contaminated site of a former printing company has sat vacant for years. Jaz has agreed to remove contaminated soil from the site in accordance with state environmental rules, in exchange for tax credits from Beaufort County.

The developer has not named the potential tenants.

The project has been scrutinized for more than two months because of concerns raised by Councilman Tabor Vaux and some local environmental leaders about the percentage of hard surfaces -- such as rooftops, sidewalks and parking -- planned for the project.

Those surfaces increase stormwater runoff, which can carry pollutants that reach local waterways -- in this case, the Colleton River.

Under its development agreement, the county will allow more than the recommended 10 percent of these surfaces. Plans show 14.5 percent, county stormwater manager Eric Larson has said.

However, the plan still meets the county's stormwater requirements because the developer will use devices to minimize runoff, such as rain gardens, retention and detention ponds, and pavement that traps runoff for re-use, he has said.

With that engineering in place, the developer argues all runoff after construction will be contained on the site regardless of the percentage, according to Walter Nester, an attorney for Jaz.

Those techniques satisfy questions posed by Reed Armstrong, a former oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who works for the Beaufort-based Coastal Conservation League.

"I'm pleased to say that I think they are a very positive response to the comments and concerns I've raised earlier," Armstrong said Monday. "We have probably the strongest stormwater requirements in the nation, and we have to trust that they will work until proven otherwise."

Most council members approved the project because of the engineering devices and because the developer has agreed to clean up the site, they said. Councilmembers Bill McBride and Vaux voted against the agreement. Councilman Steve Fobes was absent.

"As far as I know, there's no line of people out there to remediate this property," Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said.

"It is going to be a net win for the county -- not only taking care of the toxic chemicals that are on the property and getting worse every time it rains, but also the fact that I could see the runoff is being contained 100 percent," Councilman Brian Flewelling said.

However, Vaux wanted to see the county continue to fight for its recommended 10 percent rule, he said.

"When we started raising hell about this, it was at 19 percent and then they went down to 14 percent," Vaux said. "I just think it was a little premature to throw in the towel.

"But at the end of the day, even if I don't agree with it, you can't say it wasn't vetted," he said.

With council's approval Monday, Jaz can begin to secure building permits and continue work to clean up the site, according to Jaz owner David Oliver.

"It's a polarizing and sensitive issue, but now we're hoping to move forward in a positive way and get this thing off the ground," Oliver said.