Bustling Bluffton

July 27, 2023

Written by Mark E. Lett  
Photography by Sasha Sweeney

Bluffton’s ride on the growth train is starting to look like a never-ending journey.

In the past quarter-century the town has grown — and grown – at one of the fastest clips in the Palmetto State. Now, Bluffton is throttling up for more.

The path to the future builds upon a head-spinning recent history that includes:
•  Expansion from a tidy jurisdictional boundary of one square mile to a community mosaic of 54 square miles – making Bluffton the fifth-largest municipality in South Carolina.
•  A steadily growing population barreling toward 40,000, compared with fewer than 30,000 just a few years ago.
•  An ambitious To-Do list of projects in the works, in planning stages and filling wish lists in the public and private sectors.
•  A town-sponsored website that tracks development and community improvement projects. The site is comprehensive, extensive, exhaustive and, some would say, exhausting. The “Blueprint Bluffton” plan adopted last year covers more than 220 pages, describing strategies and vision for preserving the best of the past while preparing for tomorrow.

“I am proud of the dedication put forth to maintain the specialness of our town and the efforts to make it better,” Mayor Lisa Sulka said in rolling out the blueprint and complimenting the work of stakeholder groups, community planners, town staff and others.

Bluffton’s rapid expansion has been so remarkable that citizens are advised to review a raft of online data, including a Map Gallery providing updates about current developments (www.townofbluffton.sc.gov.686/Map-Gallery) and a Capital Projects Dashboard map describing the purpose, funding and status of each Town project.
Managing such relentless change demands that all involved — elected officials, town employees, developers, investors, lenders and other government bodies —function effectively somewhere between the perfect world and the bottom line.

It’s a balancing act replete with the tensions of embracing change while respecting the town’s qualities as an eclectic, funky, fun-loving, artistic, foodie-family-friendly place.

It’s not for nothing that locals sport T-shirts and hang posters extolling a “Bluffton State of Mind.”

Among those giving the growing community a smiling “Thumbs Up” is Lou Lunardini, a retired minister. The preacher and his wife, Lois, came to Bluffton nearly a quarter-century ago and have enjoyed a front-row view of the town’s evolution.

The couple had considered retirement in Annapolis, Maryland, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But in Bluffton, Lunardini said, “our clan has loved seeing stores come in and claim territory and customers, schools dot the landscape attracting younger families and necessitating a host of services to meet expanding needs and opportunities.”

Those changes are part of a development story told in fits and starts, producing a town map that one Bluffton office describes as “zig-zaggy.”

Indeed, if you hold a map of the city to the light it appears to have holes for areas that remain separate from the incorporated town. Officials point to South Carolina’s complex annexation laws as the reason.

Among the law’s mandates is property owners must be adjacent to the town by land or water and must petition for annexation. A town is not permitted to petition the property owners. Moreover, 75 percent approval of all residents is necessary to submit a petition for annexation.

Bluffton’s rapid ramp-up has occurred despite the tedious process, with the start of the big boom generally traced to the 1998 annexation of Palmetto Bluff, a vast community at the confluence of the May, Cooper and New rivers.

The Palmetto Bluff annexation triggered a domino effect. By the spring of this year, residential build-out of approved projects had reached 76 percent and non-residential build-out was 36 percent.

Town officials emphasize that managing growth is a group effort that demands cooperation and collaboration with county, state and federal agencies. A year ago, for example, Bluffton owned and maintained only 13 roads: Hampton Parkway, Dr. Mellichamp Drive, Buckwalter Parkway and Progressive, Thomas Heyward, Calhoun, Green, Pritchard, Water, Allen, Lawton, Church, and a portion of Bridge streets.

Sulka, mayor since 2008, said it often seems “every inch of earth” involves multiple decision-makers.

For many initiatives, town officials note, Bluffton has a “voice,” but not the sole “vote” on how to proceed. Rather, the process requires deft choreography of the Beaufort County School District, Beaufort County, the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the Beaufort Jasper Water Sewer Authority, the Bluffton Township Fire Department and the Beaufort County Parks & Leisure Services.

Throughout its expansion, Bluffton has made the health of the May River as the top priority. Debbie Szpanka, the town’s Director of Communications and Community Outreach, said Bluffton has targeted nearly $14 million in the past decade to protect May River and surrounding waterways.

“We want people to enjoy the best we have to offer close to where they live,” Sulka said. “We want to do parks better than anyone.”

Among the most recent initiatives: A $6 million state grant awarded to Beaufort County, the Town of Bluffton and Beaufort Jasper Water Sewer Authority to install a new sewer system in Bluffton’s Stoney Creek Watershed, adjacent to the May River.

Attention to the May River – and nearly 40 community improvement projects – comprise Bluffton’s current punch list of projects.

Among those nearing completion:
•  Oyster Factory Park – Parking improvements, paving, drainage, grading and lighting;
•  Buck Island-Simmonsville Sidewalks — Drainage and sidewalk construction between Windy Lakes Court and Sugaree Drive;
•  Town Hall Customer Service Upgrades – Fixtures, furniture and equipment to improve security and service.

Among those in progress:
•  DuBois Park Playground – Expansion and new playground equipment, synthetic turf;
•  Historic District Sewer Extension – Mainline construction for Bridge-Colcock area;
•  Rotary Center Upgrades – Seating area, rain garden, sidewalks, golf cart parking landscaping.