November 2009

Corridor: Review Board

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

In her 1970 release, “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell sings: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” The story behind the song goes that Mitchell wrote it during a trip to Hawaii. She looked out her hotel window at a beautiful mountain vista, then glanced downward and saw—you guessed it—a parking lot. Apparently, the juxtaposition of those two visuals inspired her to write the song as a lament to what she called “blight on paradise.”

Of course, had that nice, air-conditioned hotel with its parking lot never been built, Miss Mitchell might not have visited Hawaii in the first place, and she would never have seen that beautiful mountain view at all. She does have a point, though, and it brings to mind the sometimes-conflicting views about economic growth and development here in our own backyard.

On the one hand, most of us who live in the Lowcountry are here by choice, drawn by the lifestyle and the natural beauty of our surroundings, and we’d hate to see it spoiled. On the other, we want economic growth so that we and our progeny can continue to live, work, and enjoy life in this special place.

To help strike a balance between development and preservation, the South Carolina legislature established Corridor Review Boards (CRB) throughout the state. Steve Wilson of Hilton Head is a member of the CRB for southern Beaufort County, which is tasked with reviewing new construction and renovation along major thoroughfares like 278, 170, and 46.

“The Corridor Review Board is akin to an architectural review board. In fact, in the enabling legislation, we are called architectural review boards,” said Wilson. “The idea of these boards—in Beaufort County’s case—is to preserve the quality, architecture, and character of the Lowcountry environment. That may sound a bit nebulous at first, but the idea is that the state legislature understood years ago that rampant development, unchecked, would destroy the things that make South Carolina unique, and caused people to want to come here in the first place.”

The difference between a CRB and an architectural review board is that the CRB is more concerned with the aesthetics of a project. “We are less concerned about the number of units per acre, the number of parking spaces per hundred feet…those kinds of things…and more concerned about the impact of a project on the corridor and the look of the area. Some of these things are very subjective compared to architectural standards,” Wilson said. “An architectural standard might set guidelines for things like the slope of a roof and drainage. We would be more concerned with how a roof looks in consideration of the historic aspect of the Lowcountry and in consideration of its neighbors. Things like the way a color blends with the environment.”

A good example of the CRB’s work can be seen on 278 in greater Bluffton. The natural buffer zones (grassy berms and trees) between the road and a building must have 75 percent opacity, according to county guidelines. That means only 25 percent of a structure should be visible from the road. The CRB’s job is to review a project’s plans and ensure that it complies with such guidelines.

In one very visible case, the recent renovation to the Hilton Head BMW dealership at 1230 Fording Island Road (278) is an example of a non-complying structure. If you drive by, you can certainly see more than 25 percent of the structure. Wilson said that the CRB tried to correct this, but a loophole in the county’s approval process allowed it to go through as is. “We lost that battle, but we’re working to get that loophole closed.”

Contrast that to the Best Buy development a short way down the road from the dealership. Unaware of the county guidelines for buffer zones, the developer had originally cut down all of the trees between the road and the site. “They were required to re-plant all the trees, which they did willingly,” said Wilson. “In fact, I think they did such a nice job that it looks even better than the trees that were there naturally.”

Wilson stresses that the CRB is not anti-business and anti-development. Board members are all volunteers and many are business people themselves. So they are empathetic to the needs of business, but they also recognize what is necessary to keep people coming to the area so that local businesses will continue to have customers. “You have to remember that people don’t come here because we have a Best Buy. They come here because of the unique lifestyle and beautiful surroundings. If we were to become just another ‘billboard community’ we would risk losing that advantage,” Wilson said.

“We’re an all volunteer board, and I think that is one of the most wonderful things that Beaufort County and South Carolina have going for them…that people are willing to donate their time because they care about their communities,” he continued.

The Corridor Review Board meets every other Monday at the Hilton Head branch of the Beaufort County Public Library. The meetings are open to the public. For information, contact Steve Wilson at (843) 384-7277.

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