Vote on Whitehall subdivision plan ends in tie; discussion tabled

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By Mindy Lucas

Plans to build a major subdivision on the property known as Whitehall have been kicked down the road again – this time by a deadlocked planning commission.

The result was a tie after members of the Beaufort-Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) took a first vote on approving the project at its regular monthly meeting held, Monday, Aug. 17. 

After a lengthy discussion over the course of a nearly four-hour meeting, the commission eventually moved to table any further discussion until its next meeting.

The site is zoned for mixed use and current plans presented by the developer show a mix of retail and approximately 200 residential units on 10.1 acres.

Approval of the project has been held up for most of the year – previously by the developer who asked to remove its consideration from two previous MPC meetings citing a desire to have the public weigh in at an in-person meeting. However since March, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented those types of meetings and city and other municipal meetings have been held virtually.

On Monday, project developer Sam Levin was given the option to postpone again, but Levin made it clear he no longer wanted to wait.

“We’ve been down this path, and the project has been talked about an awful lot,” he said.

The other half of the original 20-acre site was sold to Beaufort County in 2018, and the county has since moved forward with its plans to develop a public park.

Chief among the commission’s latest concerns have been a traffic impact study – first provided in 2018, then updated in May. At its July meeting, commission members asked for an updated study.

The updated study, conducted by Ramey Kemp & Associates, was provided at Monday’s meeting and a traffic engineer from the firm took members through the data explaining how it was collected and analyzed.

The city’s own engineer, Jared Fralix, also weighed in on the analysis at the request of commission members. 

“I feel comfortable with what …has (been) proposed …,” Fralix said. “I think that’s adequate for what’s being proposed as far as what the traffic volumes dictate.”

However, as of Monday night, at least one commission member still had concerns over what was presented.

“I have great concerns over the traffic study,” said Judy Alling. “It’s old, it’s been revised just using formulas, no traffic counts. The bridge was not even considered in it … I think a whole new traffic study needs to be done after Covid.”

Commission members also cited concerns over public input saying a project of this size, which could impact traffic in both downtown Beaufort and on Lady’s Island, needed additional input.

As of Monday, more than 1,000 people had signed an online petition opposing any development at Whitehall that does not mitigate the overwhelmed road infrastructure on Sea Island Parkway.

While public comment was taken at Monday night’s meeting, many, including commission members, said virtual meetings were not an ideal format for that input.

However, both Commission Chairman Mike Tomy and the city’s Community and Economic Development Director David Prichard, reminded commission members that they now have 60 days to approve or disapprove of the plan now that it has been formally submitted and Levin did not agree to any further postponements.

“I agree that this would be much better not to do over Zoom, but in this case if we don’t do anything we’re approving the subdivision,” said member Jason Hincher.

Other concerns included the lack of turning lanes to handle traffic that might be stacking up on Sea Island Parkway – especially traffic coming from the bridge and trying to turn right onto Meridian Road in order to access the subdivision or the park.

The site of the project, less than a half mile from the Woods Memorial Bridge, is already known for traffic delays when the bridge is open. A traffic light will be needed at Meridian Road and Sea Island Parkway, members said.

While DOT does not historically commit to traffic lights unless traffic volumes warrant their construction, engineers indicated it was highly likely those volumes would be met once the development is built.

A traffic light at Meridian is already being considered as part of the Beaufort High School access realignment project, Fralix reminded members, part of a group of projects that is being funded by a 1 percent sales tax increase approved by Beaufort County voters in 2018.

A motion to continue the discussion at the next meeting, or at an earlier date yet to be announced, passed unanimously.