n the likely event that you embarked on your personal Hilton Head Islander adventure as tourist, and if that journey began around or prior to the early 1980s, you surely recall that U.S. 278 – “The Gateway to Hilton Head Island” – beared little resemblance to the bustling corridor we see today.
Itwas a bit of an adventure in and of itself, navigating your way to 278 from I-95 because Exit 8 had yet to exist. Relying on crude paper maps (remember those?) and a few scattered directional signs that you might miss if you blinked, you finally turned eastward filled with anticipation and visions of golf courses, beaches - a veritable sub-tropical paradise - swimming around in your head.
Most of the land you passed was wild and undeveloped, alternating between live oak “tree tunnels” and sweeping tidal creek vistas. It wasn’t just the final leg of your long journey, it was your first impression and it was memorable. You told your friends about it when you returned home, just as you told them about the beaches, golf courses, dolphins and alligators.
The Southern Beaufort County Corridor Beautifi cation Board wants to bring that little slice of Lowcountry back to our area. No, we can never return the 278 corridor through Hardeeville and Bluffton to its pristine state of years ago, but the board is embarking on a landscaping project to spruce up the medians over the 10-mile stretch from S.C. 170 to the bridges leading to Hilton Head Island. The objective: Create a memorable first and last impression of your visit to Hilton Head Island and Bluffton.
“The first thing that you see when you come to the area, when you get off I-95, and the last thing you see when you leave the area is the 278 corridor. If those medians have a park-like effect, people will be left with the impression that this is really a special place,” said Steve Wilson, the Beautification Board’s chairman.
Wilson went on to explain that in an increasingly competitive environment, communities that rely on tourism for their economic viability need to take advantage wherever they can. In our case, this project aims to put an exclamation point on a Lowcountry signature feature: its beautiful natural environment.
You may wonder why this hasn’t been done already. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Not necessarily according to Wilson.
Like any other civic undertaking, the median beautification project took some doing and ran into a few roadblocks along the way.
“This was a result of a Greater Island Council Transportation Committee initiative that started approximately three years ago,” he said. “We determined that it would be a worthwhile effort to beautify the medians, especially on 278, but agreed to include all of the major corridors south of the Broad River.”
At the time, Beaufort County contracted with Bluffton-based landscape architects J.K. Tiller Associates to come up with a master plan for the 278 medians. Unfortunately, the county did not have the funds to move forward with permitting from the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT). So Wilson formed a steering committee to figure out a way to get it done.
“It’s an independent committee not affiliated with the Greater Island Council or directly with the county, or any other official entity,” said Wilson. “We’re a group of concerned citizens who want to see something done to beautify the medians in the southern part of Beaufort County.
“We met with people from SCDOT, the county, the towns and with different landscaping people over the course of time and determined that the ideal solution was implementation of an advisory board to County Council.”
Thus was born the Southern Beaufort County Corridor Beautification Board, which has successfully brought the median beautification project back to life.
The J.K. Tiller master plan from three years ago has been approved by the Corridor Review Board and was passed by County Council last April. According to landscape architect Josh Tiller, the new median designs will be similar to landscaping in the William Hilton Parkway medians on Hilton Head Island, featuring indigenous plants like Spartina grass, saw palmettos and crape myrtles.
“It was much more complicated than I had initially anticipated,” Wilson said. “I thought it would be ‘get some flower seeds and throw them down in the median’ and we’d be done. But there are a lot of complications ranging from the fact that SCDOT owns the medians and the rights-of-way on 278. We are in the process of getting encroachment permits that will enable us to do plantings in the medians. There are a number of moving parts, most importantly for us now is funding sources.”
The project’s first phase includes the medians in front of Belfair and a stretch from the Tanger Outlets to the Hilton Head bridges. Both should be completed this summer. Funding for the Belfair stretch is coming from a county reforestation fund to which Belfair contributed as compensation for removing specimen trees during its golf course renovation. Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, Inc. is paying for the segment running from the outlet malls to the bridge as part of its development agreement with Beaufort County.
Wilson expects that some funding for the rest of the project will come from the reforestation fund and future development agreements, but he concedes that those sources will not be enough.
“We’ll be looking to the community, the plantations, individuals and companies for funding,” he said. To that end, “My Medians Matter,” a 501(c) 3 nonprofit has been established through the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry.