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Times up: County scrambles to relocate Daufuskie ferry landing and parking on Hilton Head

No one likes traffic.

Car alarms going off, horns honking, tires screeching. It’s inconvenient and frustrating, and even more so when it’s right in front of your house. This traffic mostly isn’t from locals; it’s from hundreds of tourists riding on the Daufuskie Island Ferry service between the Hilton Head area and Daufuskie Island.

Buckingham Landing neighborhood resident Alisa Ware is ecstatic that the county is complying with a court order to relocate the ferry embarkation site away from her neighborhood. The ferry will embark from the public Cross Island Boat Landing at 68 Helmsman Way starting Jan. 1.

Since 2021, Buckingham Landing residents and the county have been entwined in a legal battle over whether the county violated its zoning laws by operating the ferry out of Buckingham Landing. The county moved the embarkation point there after Hurricane Matthew destroyed the previous embarkation in 2016.

Now there is no question. The county must move the ferry embarkation site by Jan. 1, but as officials scramble to make arrangements, residents and business owners near the new boat landing worry that parking and traffic problems will move with the ferry.

With the looming deadline, the county hasn’t ironed out all the details despite working on it for over a year, according to Special Assistant to the County Administrator Hank Amundson.

“(We’re) in a comply-with-court-order mode,” Amundson said.

Right now there are 45 free parking spots at the landing, which isn’t near enough to accommodate the influx of visitors who use the ferry to go back and forth, especially during the summer months. And that doesn’t include the full-time Daufuskie Island residents who rely on the ferry to get to doctor’s appointments, shop for food and commute to work.

The county is waiting for final permit issuance from the Town of Hilton Head to install the newly built dock, which will accommodate the ferry.
The county is waiting for final permit issuance from the Town of Hilton Head to install the newly built dock, which will accommodate the ferry.

Parking isn’t much better at Palmetto Bay Marina, near the new embarkation site.

“It’s absolutely insane,” Tony Ferre said of the parking situation at Palmetto Bay Marina during the tourist season. That’s before the embarkation point is moved.

Ferre has been the marina’s harbor master about two years. The marina, shops, several restaurants including Black Marlin Bayside Grill, and multiple condo complexes have parking all within walking distance of the Cross Island Boat landing.

”Parking is going to be a huge issue,” he said. “If you look at the Buckingham scenario, they have to translate that same scenario over here. I don’t understand how they’re going to even begin to do it when you throw in the fact that it’s also a (public) boat landing.”

The boat ramp will remain open to the fishermen, charter captains and casual users, but they’ll have to work around the ferry to embark. The county is waiting for final permit issuance from the Town of Hilton Head to install the newly built dock, which will accommodate the ferry. It’s built and ready to be hooked up, according to Amundson.

The entire situation is a prime example of how Hilton Head area and county officials are trying to balance tourism — one lifeblood of the community — with the quality of life another lifeblood, the people and businesses who work and live there.

Where will parking for the Daufuskie Island ferry be on Hilton Head?

Tape marks each tree to be removed next to the little parking the Cross Island Boat landing has. They spot about five acres the county is planning to turn into 200-plus parking spots for the ferry, according to Amundson.

But none have been cut down and construction can’t start yet, despite the county working to arrange parking for more than a year and the imminent influx of cars when the ferry moves next month. Parking won’t be completed by Jan. 1, and as the date approaches, Amundson said he was unable to share what the temporary parking plan was.

Parking for the Cross Island Boat Landing, which is also known as the Broad Creek Boat Ramp.
Parking for the Cross Island Boat Landing, which is also known as the Broad Creek Boat Ramp.

However, he said it isn’t to have riders shuttle from the Tanger 2 Outlets, where they currently park for the Buckingham Landing embarkation point. That would potentially be a 10-mile trek which includes the often traffic-laden bridge onto the island.

Amundson said the location where riders will park and ride from is set to be finalized next week. He wouldn’t say whether the parking would be on Hilton Head Island or not.

“We’ve been working on this for a year or more,” he said. “Every time we think it’s solved, we hit a roadblock. I don’t want to tell you something and change it next week.”

What’s the holdup for parking construction?

The holdup? The county doesn’t own the land planned for parking yet.

Officials voted to condemn the land, meaning the county would exercise eminent domain to seize the private property for public use last year. The county set aside $4.3 million to acquire two landings, Melrose Landing on Daufuskie Island and Helmsman Way on Hilton Head.

Since then, the current owners of the lots on Helmsman Way, Broad Creek Development LLC, challenged the condemnation and it hasn’t gone through yet.

“I would have loved to start building parking a year ago,” Amundson said. He said he is hopeful the condemnations will go through next week and the county will start construction immediately. Parking rates haven’t been finalized.

Daufuskie Island Ferry Service has been operating from Buckingham Landing, seen here photographed on Sept. 13, 2022, since 2017 after Hurricane Matthew destroyed its embarkation zone at Palmetto Bay Marina on Hilton Head Island.
Daufuskie Island Ferry Service has been operating from Buckingham Landing, seen here photographed on Sept. 13, 2022, since 2017 after Hurricane Matthew destroyed its embarkation zone at Palmetto Bay Marina on Hilton Head Island.

Once the land is condemned, Amundson said it’s going to take several months for the parking lots to be completed, but they’ll prioritize Daufuskie Island residents.

“For the full capacity for all tourists, we will try to get that done by summer time when it’s tourist season,” he said. “The first goal is to serve the residents with the least inconvenience.”

Traffic and congestion

While the county moving the ferry embarkation site is positively life-changing for Buckingham Landing neighborhood residents, those close to the new landing wonder how it will impact them.

The Brighton Bay Villas, Palmetto Bay Club Villas and Palmetto Bay Marina Village businesses, and their parking, are all within walking distance of the Cross Island Boat Landing. The planned parking sites are zoned to accommodate commercial and business activities, unlike the embarkation point at Buckingham Landing.

“Potential concerns would be somebody leaving their car here overnight or a week at a time and taking up parking spaces for guests and customers,” Black Marlin Bayside Grill managing partner Mac DeRose said.

Others, like a representative from the Yacht Club of Hilton Head, said they don’t think their parking will be affected.

Alternately, heavier traffic could mean more customers and have a positive business impact, according to DeRose.

The Palmetto Bay Club Villas and their parking are all within walking distance of the Cross Island Boat Landing.
The Palmetto Bay Club Villas and their parking are all within walking distance of the Cross Island Boat Landing.

Many Daufuskie Island residents said they aren’t happy that the location change adds crossing the Hilton Head bridge to their commute. When they’re dropped off at Buckingham Landing, it’s closer to Bluffton.

“Most major things have moved to Bluffton,” Daufuskie Island resident Melissa Davis said. “I don’t have to go over the Hilton Head bridges, and I don’t have to deal with the Hilton Head traffic.”

With the change, she will.

She said the traffic could be the difference between making the last ferry from Hilton Head to Daufuskie Island and missing it, forcing residents to stay with a friend, pay for an Airbnb or sleep in their car for the night until the next ferry.

Even if the county finalizes condemnation of the land planned for the parking and successfully builds the lots, it’s unclear how much of an impact the embarkation point change will have on parking in the area. It’s also unclear what the park-and-ride plan is until the on-site parking is built.

DeRose puts it best.

“We’re just going to wait to see,” he said.