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Bluffton town council members gave initial approval Tuesday to a resolution to annex 150 acres in the Okatie headwaters area currently owned by the Graves family.
The property lies in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in southern Beaufort County, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The property is east of SC 170 and north of US 278.
The town will not formally annex the area until the Graves family submits a formal plan detailing how they foresee the property evolving.
No plan has been submitted so far, according to town planning director Milt Rhodes.
No members of the Graves family attended Tuesday's town council meeting.
Rhodes said the Graves family would most likely enter an agreement with Buckwalter Realty to develop the area, though he added the family has the option of developing it on their own. Buckwalter Realty owns property adjacent to the Graves property.
The town's future land use map for the area calls for low density residential and medium intensity commercial development.
According to the town's comprehensive plan, low density residential is defined as development that maintains the existing rural character of an area and decreases environmental and traffic impacts.
The plan defines medium intensity commercial as auto stores, groceries, gas stations, restaurants, and retail shops.
The land, which lies in an unincorporated area of Beaufort County, is currently zoned as rural and rural-transitional.
Rhodes said that if the town annexes the area, he would propose zoning the area as a Planned Unit Development.
Any use permitted in all zoning districts would be permitted in a PUD district, according to the 2007 comprehensive plan.
"The PUD gives the most flexibility of any standards," Rhodes said. "The existing zoning in the county has prescribed uses with prescribed standards."
For instance, Rhodes said, a PUD could specify that more continuous open space be preserved or that an even larger buffer zone between a future development and the river be created.
Councilman Oliver Brown said the town was particularly sensitive to maintaining control of future development in the area.
"Through our work with the May River, we've come a long way," he said. "We want to have control over what happens to that property."
Rhodes said any new development would have to adhere to the town's stormwater management regulations.
Reed Armstrong, project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, said the town ought to be addressing environmental concerns in the May River before it begins looking to the Okatie.
"(The state) says the restoration of the Okatie is even more complex than the May River," he said, referring to a study recently released by the DHEC that said fecal colliform pollution levels in the Okatie must be reduced by 51 percent to meet water quality standards.
The annexation request requires a second reading and approval by the town's planning commission and development review committee.