Rewriting the LMO

For more than three years, architect Tom Crews has led a committee through a methodical study of Hilton Head’s existing land management ordinance, which regulates development and growth on the island.

He then guided the LMO through a total rewrite of the document to meet today’s needs.


“It hasn’t been an overnight study,” Crews stressed during an interview in his New Orleans Road office. “This is the first true rewrite since the town’s original land management ordinance was adopted in 1987. It’s been revised, but this is the first time that we’re going to completely eliminate the old and adopt the new. Always in the past it was revisions to sections.”

Crews and the committee had just concluded what perhaps would be their final official meeting that morning – “I have my fingers crossed,” he said – and were turning their sights to the presentation they are scheduled to make to the council Sept. 2.

Crews said they would have one more meeting before the presentation.

“We want to record our thoughts on the process, what we have learned, what we felt may be the vision for the things that come from the effort, because it’s not a final step. It’s part of a process of realizing a vision.

“We want to try to highlight what we learned from working in the community about this because it touched on everything in our natural resources, all of our land planning and zoning and housing and commercial and economic incentives,” he said.

He came to the LMO rewrite well versed on the old document: He helped write that original LMO in 1986-1987 as a member of one of the subcommittees that shaped it.

The current committe received a charge from the Town Council that the LMO should encourage redevelopment and new investment and eliminate non-conforming buildings and sites.

Crews said once everyone was brought up to speed on what the old LMO contained, town staff would point out where people had problems, and they began from there.

“The first thing I will tell you is what (the rewritten LMO) will do is continue the preservation and protection of our natural environment, trees, water, everything most of us love about this island,” he said.

A major change was the elimination of a lot of non-conforming buildings and sites by basically eliminating the language calling them non-conforming.

“If you have a non-conforming building or site, you can’t expand it,” Crews said. “You’re kind of stuck with something that doesn’t fit. You’re a square peg in a round hole. So we worked real hard to eliminate non-conforming situations.”

A major hope, Crew said, is that the rewritten LMO will provide the incentive to redevelop the Coligny area.

“I think we could all enjoy that,” he said. “Kind of a downtown, kind of a center of the island that relates to the beach.”

The new LMO contains zoning and design standards to encourage this, Crews explained.

“Those are the tools that will allow that development to take place and, with the use of those tools, try to create the incentive for existing property owners like JR Richardson, who owns Coligny Plaza, whose family has owned Coligny Plaza long before we were in town … to find an opportunity to instead of just add another coat of paint next year, to do new development and redevelopment.” 

Crews said a word that was borne out of the writing of the original land management ordinance adopted in 1987 was “gateway.” He said the writers of that document initially thought of the bridges to Hilton Head Island as the only gateway.

Today, there are other gateways, such as the Hilton Head Island Airport and local marinas that could be considered gateways. He added that the Cross Island Expressway, which was not on the drawing board at that time, is a “the bridge to the beach” in Coligny.

Crews said while Hilton Head Island was a developing community when the 1987 LMO was adopted, it is now a mature community.

“A lot of development was going on in 1987,” Crews said. “There was a lot of fear of what the development would become. So a lot of the ordinances were written out of that fear. We didn’t want to be something awful, tacky and with bright lights. I use the reference to Myrtle Beach like everybody does. There was a lot of fear that could happen and so they had a lot of restrictive ordinances to keep that future from coming.”

Today, he said, “we’re not as much a growing and developing community as a mature community,” where a pattern for any development has been pretty well established.

“We know where our churches and shopping centers are. We know where the hospital and supporting offices for hospitals are, where residential communities and gathering places are,” Crews said. “That pattern is pretty set.”

This is especially so due to the fact that 70 percent of the town is located in gated communities with their own rules,” he said.

That other 30 percent includes some residential and most of the commercial properties.

“So some of our prime focus is on commercial areas that support our economy and our services for the community,” said Crews. “They are the ones we focused on the most in rewriting the land management ordinance in regard to zoning and uses and design standards.

“Those are the three key components – zoning, uses and design standards – and those are the things that we tried to use as incentives for people to redevelop and reinvest in their properties. It’s not new development so much. It’s redevelopment.”

How Crews made it to Hilton Head

When Tom Crews left his home in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to head out to Aspen, Colo., in 1974 after his graduation from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he already had his first connection with Hilton Head Island.

He had come to the island occasionally with his parents, who vacationed here with friends who had a timeshare on the beach off Folly Field Road.

In Aspen, Crews worked as a builder for two years, then joined the architectural firm of David Finholm & Associates as an associate architect. While working with a client, he ran into Jim Chaffin, who had worked with Charles Fraser, the developer of Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island.

Crews’ client, who hailed from Ohio, was building a house next door to Chaffin’s home in Aspen.

Crews said Chaffin had left Fraser to work on another development, Snowmass Village.

“We call it the ‘University of Charles,’ ” Crews said. “Charles hired all kinds of people that came under his wing to learn about resort development, then they went off and did their own thing. Jim was one of those. Now he’s back at Spring Island.”

Over time, Crews met a lot of other people from Hilton Head Island in Aspen.

He also learned how to ski.

“My first skis were ones my buddies found down at the dump,” he said with a chuckle. “And somebody donated some old leather lace-up boots. So I probably had the cheapest outfit on the mountain – and it showed. I had no idea of what I was doing.”

Crews also learned about energy and energy efficiency in buildings while in Aspen. He said he got into solar, underground and other elements of energy efficiency, an interest he has carried with him throughout his career as an architect.

“I loved it and still do,” he said.

Crews left Aspen after 11 years when the architectural work for the high-end custom homes he designed began to dry up. He attributed that to the threat at the time of a mortgage tax write-off going away.

He headed south to Austin, Texas, where work was still plentiful. He joined friends at the architectural firm of Dick Clark.
Crews said a fellow he met in Austin had a fraternity brother who lived in Hilton Head Island, a Realtor named Brad Wilson.

“My friend out there called Brad and said, ‘I have a friend here who wants to come to work for an architect on Hilton Head Island. Is there anything going on there?’

“He said, ‘Yeah, tell him to come on and he can stay with us.’ So Brad had me stay in his place. I didn’t know a single person. Brad was the first person I met here.”

It was Valentine’s Day 1986 when he arrived at the Wilson home on Hilton Head, he said.

He then began knocking on doors to find a job and landed one two months later at Doug Corkern Architects Inc., where he found a warm reception.

“Doug’s office was a big office. It had 50 people at one time,” Crews said. “He and his wife sort of adopted me. Doug told me all the history and introduced me to people.”

He stayed there for 4½ years, then joined Architectural Resources Inc., headed by Bennett Strahan. He said he wanted to work for that firm because Strahan was the local architect for the restoration of the Auldbrass Plantation near Yemassee, which was started by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. Wright’s grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright, is the architect of record for the project.

“I have worked on the property for 24 years now,” he said. “It’s a big plantation. It has farm buildings, guest quarters, workers’ quarters and the family’s house. There’s still some land that hasn’t been built. That’s what I’m holding out for. That keeps me from retiring tomorrow. I want to finish it.”

Crews guessed it might – just might – be completed in 2019, some 80 years after it was started.

Crews got married in 1991 while working at Architectural Resources. When he and his wife Patty returned from their honeymoon, he found himself without a job. The firm had gone bankrupt while they were away

“I had no job, so that’s when I decided to have my own practice again,” he said. “That’s when I started Tom Crews Architects.”

In doing so, he was employing a lesson he learned from one of his professors in college: “He said decide where you want to be geographically, then figure out how to support yourself to be there.” So how did Crews come to choose Hilton Head Island?

“I’m a sailor – have been all my life – so I wanted to get on the water,” he said. “The mountains were wonderful, but I missed the water. Aspen was a resort community and I loved the resort environment. Hilton Head Island had a resort environment.”

Asked if he ever had been mistaken for movie actor Tom Cruise, Crews said he hadn’t. “But,” he allowed, with a smile, when people hear his name spoken, “I get a lot of smiles and raised eyebrows.”