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Recalling Northern Beaufort County’s ‘annexation wars’

7 mins read

By Scott Graber

It was years ago — perhaps 18 years ago — and we were sitting in a dark, oak-paneled hotel bar. I could be seen with a Dewar’s Scotch on the bar in front of me; David Taub then favored Merlot; and normally we would have been animated, laughing. But not that night. That night we were angry and arguing about annexation.   

Earlier that year I had been working with Beaufort County Council trying to sell its “Com-prehensive Plan” to the public — to sell the notion that certain parts of the county should always be undeveloped, unimproved, rural. David, a former mayor, was interested in keeping the City of Beaufort solvent — trying to generate tax money from developing areas then outside the city limits. Previously we had tiptoed around this difference of opinion, but that night — in a bar in Newport News, Virginia — we clashed.  

The “annexation wars” had started in 1998 with Union Camp’s effort to get more density for what would eventually become Palmetto Bluff. The Comprehensive Plan had as-signed a “rural” classification for this timber-growing property, meaning one house for every three acres. Union Camp wanted one house to each acre. County Council and Un-ion Camp met many times but were unable to reach a compromise. Eventually Union Camp said it would seek annexation into Bluffton in return for the 1-to-1 ratio it wanted. Bluffton agreed to the deal and suddenly a huge chunk of Beaufort County passed out of the county’s Planning Department into the one-man office in the Town of Bluffton.  

The City of Beaufort and the Town of Port Royal took note of this opportunistic annexa-tion. Beaufort had long coveted the commercial property on Lady’s Island, and Port Royal saw its own manifest destiny extending to the Broad River bridge and beyond. The city began, in 2000, a series of amphibious assaults aimed at Publix (who wanted Sunday beer sales), Walgreen’s (who didn’t like the county’s site requirements), St. Pe-ter’s Catholic Church and Distant Island. Then, in a turning movement reminiscent of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, the city came looking for real estate near the air-port in 2003.  

The developer who owned the airport property wanted something in return. He wanted to develop the property commercially and the quid pro quo — for his annexation petition — was a development agreement showing possible buildings to be built, densities, the ag-gregate square footage and plenty of room for innovation. When, in 2008, it became clear that the developer now had a Walmart in mind, public opinion — especially on La-dy’s Island — turned against the project. The lawsuit that followed ended with the  ourt saying, ‘Neither do the PUDs impose limits, building sizes or require any specific layout of buildings.’ And so it came to pass that Lady’s Island got its hotly debated Walmart. 

The annexation wars between Beaufort County and the City of Beaufort came to an end with a negotiated settlement that established growth boundaries in Northern Beaufort County. This treaty decided that land inside these boundaries — even though it is not now part of the city — will likely be annexed into the city, and the county won’t fight that annexation. Those boundaries now run along Whale Branch in the north, the Broad Riv-er in the west and south, and Chowan Creek on the east. These boundaries will keep St. Helena Island, Coosaw Island, Lobeco and Sheldon rural. But at the moment, Lady’s Island is completely within this boundary and likely to remain there. (There is a group on Lady’s Island that wants to move the existing growth boundary from Chowan Creek Bridge back to the Walmart in order to protect the eastern-most, low-lying part of Lady’s Island from further commercial development — but that horse may be out of the barn.)  

I must confess that I didn’t come to this debate without blemish. Many years ago a de-veloper, Homer Hungerford, wanted to build a hotel at the Lady’s Island Marina. He needed sewer for his hotel and the county would not give it to him. So he went to the City of Beaufort and offered to petition for annexation if the city provided sewer. And so Homer, with my assistance, petitioned for annexation and got his annexation approved. There was a lawsuit over contiguity — the county arguing that Homer’s property wasn’t contiguous — but the county lost and the city of got its first foothold on Lady’s Island.  

David Taub and I still argue — and we drink our respective libations in other dark pubs — but we’ve moved from annexation to Mohammed Bin Salmon, Jeff Sessions, Judaism and women’s volleyball. But the annexation wars are over, the treaty honored, and Northern Beaufort County will have fields, forests and, perhaps, a farm or two. There is no such treaty in Southern Beaufort County and no guarantee that this landscape won’t be totally transfigured by the tsunami of retirees who have descended on Bluffton deter-mined to have their dock, their view, and their Black Friday big-box shopping experience. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com

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