Plans for the long-awaited expansion of the Buckwalter Recreation Center have been modified because the site lost an additional 22 acres to wetlands in the past decade.
How can wetlands just form that weren’t there before?
Eric Walsnovich, a spokesman for the developer, Wood and Partners Inc., said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the wetlands to form, but he believes that development around the area could have played a role. The original expansion plans were drawn up in 2001, before neighborhoods like the Farm, Barton’s Run and Hampton Hall were built near and around the center.
Al Stokes, former director of the Waddell Mariculture Center, a state-run conservation area in Beaufort County, agreed.
“In my opinion, it’s a symptom of the development around it, because of the way they construct and build homes and businesses is [they’re] elevated to prevent flooding in those particular buildings, ‘‘ said Stokes. “That water’s got to go to the next lowest point and that’s probably that area that’s not developed.”
The town of Bluffton owns the 142.5-acre recreation site, but Beaufort County operates and maintains it.
Beaufort County approved the new plan in 2014, about the same time the wetlands began to form, but it wasn’t brought to the Bluffton Town Council until 2021 when enough impact fees had been collected to fund the first phase of the expansion project.
The plans for the recreation center located across from the Bluffton school complex on Buckwalter Parkway had to be changed significantly. Three baseball fields, equipped with a press box and concession stand, a dog park and a pool are all amenities that have been lost due to the wetlands, which went from 39 acres to 61 acres on the 142.5-acre site.
“It’s unfortunate we lost the three baseball fields,” said Walsnovich, “But the land mass to have a baseball field complex is just not there anymore.”
Originally, the expansion was to be built in two phases, with Phase 1 already being funded with a little over $7 million raised from Bluffton Parks and Recreation impact fees. The new plan will now be built in one phase.
It’s estimated that the project will now cost between $8 million and $10 million due to labor shortages and inflation, according to Beaufort County spokesman Chris Ophardt.
The spot that would have housed the baseball fields will now mostly consist of wetlands and wetland buffers. Two multipurpose fields and restrooms will fill the rest of the space. The proposed dog park, which would have been found on the edge of the facility, can no longer be built.
“The new facilities are intended to help the county expand its Parks and Recreation-sponsored youth and adult athletic leagues,” said Shannon Loper, director of Beaufort County Parks and Recreation. “Soccer and flag football are the two fastest-growing sports among our youth.”
Because the dog park was no longer an option at Buckwalter, it was moved to Oscar Frazier park and built in 2018.
Much of the site will still be open space with a minimum 20-foot buffer around all wetlands and include wetland retainers and buffers, street and landscape buffers, storm water facilities and undeveloped green space.
The new plan, despite losing amenities, did allow for new ones to be added. A nine-hole disc golf course will be added to the southern end of the facility.
“The disc golf course has a passionate group of players that we think will enjoy the layout,” Ophardt said.
A tennis center, also at the southern end of the facility, was revised to include three extra courts, for a total of 16.
“The tennis center will serve the general public and be able to host high school tournaments,” he said.
Already existing amenities at the site include a skate park and three soccer fields. Four more fields will be added, including the two multipurpose fields where the baseball fields would have been.
Because the recreation center will eventually house so many amenities, the minimum number of parking spots needed was determined to be 614. The current plan shows that 665 will be available.
There’s no timetable for the completion of the project, but last year the county said three years and they hope to stay on that timeline by finishing in two years.
The next steps are getting the plans approved and permits secured, then putting the work out to bid.