It’s no secret southern Beaufort County has grown rapidly in the past 30 years, with golf-loving retirees driving the boom.
In 1985, Hilton Head Island had over 17,000 full-time residents. The U.S. Census Bureau now estimates more than 40,000 people call the island home.
The town of Bluffton’s rise has been even more dramatic, with a jump from 3,500 residents in 2000 to a current estimated population of nearly 17,000.
The slowdown of the Great Recession gave the area a little break from the growth, but that respite appears to be over, leaving many to wonder: What will the next 30 years be like?
Local leaders and longtime observers of the area’s growth predict the next three decades will lead tens of thousands of additional people to stake their claims in southern Beaufort County. Though Hilton Head is already near build-out, the town is expected to add about 10,000 more residents by 2025, according to the 2010 Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan. The most growth will be in the greater Bluffton area, with its population predicted to rise to as many as 84,000 residents, from about 37,000 in 2006, according to the plan.
As it has been during the past 30 years, the area’s scenic beauty will be the main draw. But these thousands of newcomers will also arrive with many expectations that will change the area and some of its long-held views in a variety of ways.
Those changes include fewer communities built around retirees and golfers; more buses, bicycling and walking as alternative means of transportation; and a return to several generations of family members living on the same property.
And if plans for the future Jasper Port and other economic improvements come to fruition, the growth won’t just come from retirees.
“Thanks to the economic activity of the Jasper Port,” says state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, “you’re going to see a much broader economic base. You will see more blue-collar jobs, more younger people and families coming in.”
Such a large future influx of residents brings immediate mental images of traffic gridlock and road rage.
Long-term plans call for new bridges to and from Hilton Head, making the island’s entrance and exit three lanes each way. Bluffton Parkway would be extended parallel to U.S. 278 all the way to Interstate 95. And U.S. 17 would be widened to four lanes from the Talmadge Memorial Bridge in Savannah to I-95.
But many predict alternative transportation, including public transit, will become a greater focus of future mobility.
Retiring baby boomers will want to live in communities with shops and other amenities within biking and walking distance. Public buses will be needed for more than just bringing in rural workers to the island for jobs, says Ginnie Kozak, planning director for the Lowcountry Council of Governments.
Kozak says that studies indicate millennials, those born after 1980 and coming of age in the 2000s, have similar transportation desires as seniors, seeking less reliance on costly cars and wanting to walk, bike or take a bus to get around.
“For 30 or so years, it was thought that public transit meant bringing low-level service workers from the rural areas to Hilton Head,” Kozak says. “And already things are changing, because newcomers and tourists call Palmetto Breeze (public bus system) quite often asking, ‘Where can I get a bus?’ The demand is growing.”
CONNECTING THE CUL-DE-SACS
But for public transportation to work, local development will have to change.
Southern Beaufort County’s current makeup of dozens of separate communities, many of them gated, make public transit extremely inefficient. Public transit needs population density and no cul-de-sacs.
Kozak sees a need for greater connectivity between the communities to allow for smoother transportation.
New communities will be designed to meet residents’ desires to live closer to where they work and shop. More biking and walking trails will be added. And as development reaches build-out and land becomes scarcer, existing communities will be redeveloped, adding shops and other amenities to accommodate the changing demands. Many golf courses will be converted to residential and commercial space.
She also predicts some communities will change their rules on the types of structures allowed. Small dwellings will pop up in backyards to accommodate older family members, as the trend of “aging in place” rather than entering assisted-living communities grows. She and others see a return to the days of multiple generations of families living together.
“Baby boomers are getting older, and millennials are coming of age. Generation X is hitting their 50s,” she says. “A lot of what we have is just not going to be appropriate. The structures will need to be different.”
DRAWING A POPULATION MIX
In the past 30 years, those older than 65 have represented one of the fastest-growing segments of southern Beaufort County’s population.
That’s likely to continue over the next 30 years as baby boomers continue to retire; however, Kozak and others believe the area’s economy will grow and attract younger workers — especially if the Jasper Port comes to fruition.
The port, to be built in Jasper County along the Savannah River, is heading into its permitting phase, which could take up to five years.
Construction is expected to begin around 2020, bringing thousands of jobs over the 20 years it takes to build the port, according to Davis.
The port will also lead to spinoff industries and other employment opportunities for the region.
“The impact that the Jasper Port is going to have, once it’s fully developed, is going to be equal to BMW, Michelin and Boeing combined,” he says, of plants that have been built in other parts of the state, employing a total of more than 20,000 workers.
“We’re going to see an explosion of economic activity from the Jasper Port.”
Along with the port, Andy Twisdale, a Hilton Head Island Realtor, believes that as more people continue to telecommute, thanks to future technological advancements, they will have more freedom to choose where they live.
Undoubtedly, many of them will choose southern Beaufort County.
“Over the next 30 years, people are going to be looking more and more for the natural beauty that we have,” he says.
PROTECTING THE BIG DRAW
Though there may be differences of opinion as to what the area will look like in 30 years, all seem to agree that all bets are off if the area’s environment is not preserved.
“The next 25 years are going to be a transformative time for our county,” Davis says. “But we need to make sure we don’t lose the thing that makes our place special in the first place.”
Davis believes the county and its local governments must continue efforts to protect water quality, such as it has with successful referendums on raising sales taxes to buy environmentally sensitive property to keep it from being developed.
Bluffton’s May River is one such ecological jewel that must be preserved, says Tabor Vaux, who represents Bluffton on Beaufort County Council. He believes the area is up to the challenge.
“Thirty years from now, I see southern Beaufort County as a growth-management model for the state,” he says. “The initiatives being implemented for the preservation of the May River will be duplicated by other municipalities facing similar water-quality issues.”
Emory Campbell, president of Gullah Heritage Consulting Service on Hilton Head, believes the area should also consider climate change and rising sea levels.
“We need to be prepared for rising tides, which means that over the next 30 years, Hilton Head’s land development program is going to have to be changed,” Campbell says. “Setback requirements from the ocean and the creeks will have to be changed so that we don’t have unnecessary losses from hurricanes or weather changes.”
Daufuskie Island is also wrestling with its future, trying to balance growth without disrupting its unique environment.
Charlie Small, chairman of the Daufuskie Island Council, points to plans for a 2,000-home development on a 1,000-acre tract on the island. He favors growth, but believes the island could not support such a large development.
“There’s a fine line between what’s right for the island and what’s right for the ecosystem,” Small says. “You don’t rush into anything — out here you don’t. We’re still trying to find that level point.”
One thing he can predict is that the island will remain accessible only by boat.
“There will always be no bridge,” he says. “I don’t think that will ever be an issue. That’s part of the uniqueness of it and the reason I like it so much.”
A DIFFERENT FUTURE
Despite the many challenges, optimism abounds for southern Beaufort County’s next 30 years.
“I see a fairly bright future, but I think it’s going to look a lot different,” says Kozak, the LCOG planning director.
“I think it’s going to be great,” she adds. “I think it’s exciting that we have all this change to look forward to.”
“Beaufort County and the surrounding area is going to be one of the areas of most growth, in terms of population and in terms of economic activity, than any other part of the state,” he says. “That presents a lot of opportunities but also a lot of challenges. … It’s an exciting time to be in Beaufort County.”