2006: No Bluff: An intimate 20,000-acre plan

Bluffton, S.C.

It sounds corny – or vaguely New Age. But a basic design principle of smart, ecologically minded community planning these days is to parcel out development in functional segments, creating a clear focal point of town life and dissipating the densities along radial lines so that they influence the farthest reaches of the site. That’s the way to avoid wall-to-wall development and golf courses stuffed chock-a-block with real estate that seemingly overhangs fairways.

How else to explain what’s so engaging about the newly planned and developed community of Palmetto Bluff at May River? Here’s an ecologically rich, 20,000-acre (31-square-mile) parcel along the headwaters of the May River, midway between Savannah, Ga., and Hilton Head Island, S.C. The land is rich with wetlands, intracoastal tidal marsh and a maritime forest teeming with live oaks, palmetto trees and moss. A Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course touches lightly on the land, with homesites set back generously from corridors of play. Only 90 residences are anywhere near the holes, an absurdly low figure compared to regional standards.

The golf, like all of Palmetto Bluff, is elegant and low-key. The course registers about 5,000 rounds per year – by plan, all of it in the company of caddies. As demand from membership and resort guests increases, a second course, to be designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, will take shape.

Xan Smith, one of the project managers for Palmetto Bluff, described the land plan as “the antithesis of Hilton Head.” The idea, he said, “is to establish a place that would have vitality and body heat, with clearly defined edges and yet a sense of transition from village to rural.”

The radial dispersion that distinguishes Palmetto Bluff is a classic feature of older, intimate southern towns. The paradigm might be the land plan that Frederick Law Olmsted created for Pinehurst, N.C., more than a century ago. Historic downtown Beaufort, S.C., conveys a similar charm. The challenge at Palmetto Bluff was to integrate residential and recreation while respecting the integrity of an environmentally sensitive site – and making that ecology part of the resource that would be preserved and enjoyed.

Part of the Palmetto Bluff land had been a plantation in the 19th century. Later it was used for farming, turpentine production and ranching before being converted into a rustic hunting retreat. The history of land use meant that vast tracts essentially were old growth forests. There also were 20-foot-high outlooks (bluffs) that afforded vantage points of the waterways and surrounding land.

In 2000, Crescent Resources, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, bought the land and began formulating plans for Palmetto Bluff. A major source of expertise in the development plan was the design firm of Hart Howerton, based in San Francisco and New York. Having worked on such environmentally sensitive, low-impact golf real estate plans as Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel Valley, Calif., and Mayacama in Santa Rosa, Calif., the firm first undertook a thorough assessment of the Palmetto Bluff property.

David Howerton, founding partner and chairman of Hart Howerton, says he “wandered around the site over many months, before there were reliable site survey maps.” Howerton and his associates, along with Palmetto Bluff LLC president and CEO Jim Mozley and other planners came away determined to let the natural features determine how the development would proceed.

They settled on a village concept, with focused shopping, restaurants, marina and hotel facilities along with a small clubhouse on the east side of the land near the May River, then let the real estate trail out along the water’s edge. This allowed the uplands forest – fully one-third of the land mass at Palmetto Bluff – to remain intact.

The architecture of the buildings is Lowcountry, with touches of Shingle Style and American Craftwork for detailing and ornamentation.

Lowcountry architecture emphasizes air and light, with open, spacey vaulted-ceiling main rooms that ventilate well and allow the house to breathe with minimal reliance upon air conditioning. Wood is abundant, with extensive glass paneling often used to create a sense of intimacy with the outdoors. Angled roofs convey a southern sensibility, and the roof lines tend to overhang far enough beyond the walled-in areas that they provide shade for all interior space and protective cover for large porches.

Howerton also emphasizes the “unbundling” of buildings – breaking up what might otherwise be a single-massed structure into smaller, more intimate buildings, with guest cottages, garages and studios adjoining the main house and perhaps joined by a breezeway or covered patio.

The unbundled look is pronounced in Headwaters, the 10 isolated parcels (17 to 40 acres apiece) designed for family compounds and multiple dwellings on the far western side of Palmetto Bluff. Given the heavy growth forest and understory, these homesites will recede into the background, the more so because conservation easements here limit the buildable component of each Headwater estate to 3 acres.

The unbundled Lowcountry look also will be found with May River Forest’s 240 homesites, which are scattered in woodlands and along the river corridors. Homes here, on parcels of 1 to 4 acres, will range from 4,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet, often with more than 2,000 square feet of covered porch space. The dominant colors will be dark, allowing these homes to blend into the natural setting.

By contrast, the 350 village-oriented residences, on lots ranging from 1⁄10 acre to 1 acre, will be much lighter in color and also smaller, from 2,000-7,000 square feet. These homes, arrayed in the immediate area around the main town (Wilson Village) or flanking it on the inland side (West Wilson Village), help generate the “body heat” and intimate community that promise to provide Palmetto Bluff with so much vibrancy.
















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