Q&A with Bluffton's director of growth development, Shawn Leininger

Shawn Leininger knows he’s a Lowcountry cliché, the Ohio native and Ohio State Buckeyes alum drawn south by the siren call of the May River. Bluffton’s director of growth development once admired the town’s expansion from afar while forging his own real-life “SimCity” efforts up north.

Leininger made the move to Bluffton in 2011 and has spent the past four years using that admiration as a base for putting his own mark on the area’s growth plan. How does he think it’s working out so far?

Question: What did you learn from your past stops in Ohio that you’ve been able to put to work in managing growth in Bluffton?

Answer: The Ohio cities of Delaware and Powell are very similar to Bluffton in that they were and remain high-growth communities with small-town, historic roots.  During my time with those cities, they were in the heart of the fourth fastest-growing county in the United States. Those communities, like Bluffton, had council members who had the foresight and courage to put in place a vision and tools that would both promote growth yet protect the quality of life that attracted growth. The broad spectrum of policies and projects I was involved with in Ohio prepared me well for my role in Bluffton helping to balance growth with the preservation of culture, history, and environment.

Q: What do you expect from your Buckeyes this fall? Do you and (Beaufort County administrator and diehard OSU fan Gary Kubic) ever talk Buckeyes?

A: I love my Buckeyes. It is a pleasant surprise to be surrounded by so many Buckeye fans in the heart of the Lowcountry. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of fans in the area and we have places that welcome us, like Mangiamo’s. When it comes to The Ohio State University, I am in good company with other local government leaders like Gary Kubic who are also alumni and avid fans.

Obviously, Ohio State had a phenomenal year winning the National Championship and we had fun watching them on that journey. That being said, the Buckeyes are solid this year and I look forward to a potential rematch with Alabama.

Q: Why do town and county officials continue to push for the realignment of the 2.5-mile stretch of Bluffton Parkway between Buck Island Road and Buckwalter Parkway? Can you explain it from a planning point of view?

A: To understand the realignment, you have to look at the current plan for Bluffton Parkway in its entirety, from the bridges to Hilton Head to the future exit 3 on Interstate 95, and consider the future development of the region.  As this area, along with Hardeeville and Jasper County, when built out, U.S. 278 will no longer be able to solely support the traffic needs of the region. Bluffton Parkway, including the realignment, is an alternative to U.S. 278 and adds capacity to the region’s east-west road network. 

Also, while we have been fortunate to avoid a major storm event, we have to be cognizant that we live along the coast and are at risk for a hurricane. Evacuation of the area’s residents to safety has to be a priority. Bluffton Parkway provides an alternative evacuation route to U.S. 278.

Q: What drew you to Bluffton? What’s the one thing that’s been better than you imagined and one part of living here you weren’t expecting?

A: An opportunity to work and expand my career as a planner with the town of Bluffton brought me here. My wife and I visited during the interview process and we were hooked. Bluffton is a special place. The combination of a coastal culture with a rich history and natural beauty is unlike any place we have ever seen.  I love Ohio and am proud of my roots, but it is hard to not see the sun so many days out of the year.

No question, the people are better than we expected. Southern hospitality is alive and well in Bluffton.

Beaufort County Schools have been a welcome surprise. Schools are hard to judge without being in them and seeing the results firsthand. That being said, the experiences and growth we have seen in our kids since arriving in Bluffton have exceeded our expectations. As shown in Red Cedar Elementary School being named Palmetto’s Finest, the teachers, administrators and resources available to our kids are unmatched. I am so proud of our schools.

Q: Bluffton has been a model in filtering growth away from the May River and into areas that won’t impact the May as much. What’s the biggest factor in managing urban sprawl away from the river moving forward?

A: Monitoring development and taking every opportunity to re-direct development rights away from the river are a high priority for the town. Bluffton has identified via its Growth Framework Map where higher-intensity growth is supported by infrastructure while protecting critical natural areas. The town’s residents and businesses have also been important partners. For example, Crescent Resources (Palmetto Bluff) has already proven to be a leader in this effort by transferring 1,300 dwelling units out of the critical area of the May River watershed.

Q: Affordable housing is always a hot topic. Where does the idea of a fee for building permits to create an affordable housing trust fund currently stand? What else is being discussed to address affordable housing?

A: It remains one of several ideas to support affordable housing. Through the 2015-16 Strategic Plan, Town Council has directed town staff to explore a comprehensive approach to affordable housing. Among the ideas to be discussed are removing regulatory barriers and providing incentives to promote the development of affordable housing units and choices. These incentives could be financial or involve the provision of additional development rights to help offset high land and development costs.

Q: How do you balance the growth on Buckwalter vs. the Old Town residents and merchants who feel that is the center of town?

A: While the town is now more than 54 square miles in size, Old Town is and will always be the heart of Bluffton.  However, each section of Bluffton — whether it is Buckwalter, Palmetto Bluff, New Riverside or Old Town — will have its own distinctive identities and offer residents unique benefits and opportunities.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing Bluffton in managing growth in the next five years?

A: From my perspective, I’d say protecting the May River, ensuring housing options are available for all income levels and preserving historical assets.

The last growth period negatively impacted the river, resulting in areas being closed to shellfish harvesting. The town has made huge strides in recent years, resulting in more and more areas of the river being reopened. As growth returns to the area, we need to continue to enforce our stormwater regulations and invest in sewer and stormwater infrastructure.

Land prices and the cost of construction are rising again. As a result, the ability to provide housing options for low- to moderate-income families is being strained. It will be important to focus efforts on identifying reasonable and appropriate mechanisms to offset those rising costs and ensure workforce housing is available.

As the town grows and welcomes new residents and businesses to the community, we must not lose track of the history and culture that attracted us all here.  It defines Bluffton, it defines its people.  We need to continue to protect and invest in our historic resources, such as Oyster Factory Park, Garvin House and Calhoun Street.

Q: Where’s the one area that hasn’t grown yet that town officials feel could be the next pocket of growth in town?

A: All areas of Bluffton have experienced growth at this point.  It is always difficult to predict trends, particularly in the current economy. However, Town Council established a Growth Framework Map that identifies where we want to grow and where do not want grow. This policy tells us where and how to focus our efforts in supporting growth and preservation in the community.

Q: What’s the one store/chain you’d like to see come to Bluffton? Asking as a resident, you’d need to take the town employee hat off for this one.

A: As a resident, we need a Noodles & Company. It is heaven in a bowl.

Q: Bluffton is on the verge of another big growth spurt. What lessons did the town learn from the 2005-era growth that can apply this time?

A: We are better prepared. The town has an Old Town Master Plan, May River Watershed Action Plan, updated Unified Development Ordinance and stormwater regulations, Growth Framework Strategy, and Strategic Plan. These documents, as adopted by Town Council, tell us where to focus our efforts and how to manage growth.  From an operations standpoint, we have the people and policies in place to manage zoning, development, and building permit applications from the initial application through the final inspection and occupancy of a new home or business.

Q: What makes Bluffton such an attractive draw for families? How do you protect that from a growth perspective?

A: The schools, recreational opportunities, activities and festivals, and being a safe place with a strong sense of community.  It doesn’t hurt that we can have 70-degree weather in February and we can be out on the May River instead of shoveling snow and ice off the driveway. 

Growth pressures are always changing and we need to be able change with them. We have to continue to invest in the town’s assets and ensure we have the tools in place to protect them from any potential adverse growth impacts. 

Q: What’s the one question you get asked the most by residents when it comes to managing growth? The question you wish you could just put an answer on a business card and hand out when it’s asked?

A: The No. 1 question I hear is, “How do we do it?”  The answer is simple. We have elected leaders who care deeply about the future of Bluffton and who have established a clear vision and have equipped town staff with ordinances, policies and tools to implement that vision.