Bluffton character -- What is it? And how can developers get it?

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Bluffton character -- What is it? And how can developers get it?

By RENEE DUDLEY rdudley@islandpacket.com 843-706-8138
Published Monday, July 7, 2008 in The Island Packet  |  699 Words  |  news/local

Even for longtime resident Emmett McCracken, "Bluffton character" can be hard to define.
"It's like pornography," the former mayor said, referring to a 1964 Supreme Court opinion on obscenity. "I know it when I see it."
McCracken, now a Planning Commission member, is not the only town official who finds it difficult to describe the architectural character of a town that prides itself on being eccentric and traditional. And it can be even harder for an out-of-town development design team.
That's part of the reason some planning and architectural review officials are calling for updated guidelines, with pictorial examples, that developers can turn to before starting a project.
Bluffton character is the design standard developers are supposed to follow. That character also is to be maintained when existing structures are altered. Most development agreements call for projects to have Bluffton character but never explicitly describe what it is.
For example, the Buckwalter development agreement calls for developers to "preserve and enhance the basic character of Bluffton and the quality of life that has made Bluffton both unique and appealing." It calls for a "village design theme" in Buckwalter Commons and for "high quality development in keeping with the Bluffton community."
Some officials say the term "Bluffton character" is left intentionally vague so that projects don't end up looking identical.
Even when plans come before town panels, such as the Planning Commission and Historical Preservation Commission, members sometimes differ on what constitutes Bluffton character.
If Blufftonians can't agree on what Bluffton character is, it may be impossible for out-of-state developers to understand, said Don Blair, a member of the Planning Commission and its former chairman.
Pictures may be the answer, Blair said.
During a recent commission meeting, he suggested compiling a "Bluffton character manual" with sets of at least five pictorial examples of Bluffton architecture. The photos would be accompanied by written descriptions of each use, such as commercial and residential.
The historic section of town is the only area to have a set of specific design guidelines, part of its "form-based code." Blair and other town officials want more detailed architectural guidelines for other parts of town as well.
In some cases outside of old town, "developers said Bluffton character couldn't be defined, so they ignored it," Blair said.
But when designs lack certain Lowcountry traits that most planning and architectural review officials can agree on -- small-scale structures with porches and overhangs, for example -- officials can reject them and demand a redesign. That costs time and money for developers.
In the past, he said, developers looked only to Calhoun Street when told to employ examples of Bluffton architecture.
"They said commercial buildings can't look like Calhoun Street," he said.
But Calhoun Street in the town's historic district is not the only example of what Blair and Doug Corkern of the town's Historic Preservation Commission call Bluffton's vernacular architecture.
The Planning Commission has lauded the 5-year-old Bluffton Post Office design. The tin roof, overhangs and walkways are all Bluffton features, Blair said. The Bluffton library, with its porch and shutters, is another good example.
"Wherever you go in the country -- New England, Chicago, California -- its architecture defines it," Blair said. "People want to go someplace where that exists."
Bluffton is not the only town that has struggled to define its look.
Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley said the town struggled to define "island character" before finally creating a set of design standards.
"There wasn't one definition," Riley said. "We've had to tweak it several times."
Laura Morgan, Bluffton's planning director, said her staff also has discussed expanding the official definition of Bluffton character. One idea is to give 100 residents disposable cameras so they can photograph architecture they find to be characteristically Bluffton.
The town may hold workshops so Blufftonians can tell town officials their ideas for maintaining town character, Morgan said.
Blair said he was confident Bluffton character could be described better than it is now.
Still, he said, "sometimes Bluffton's more of a feeling than anything else."