BEAUFORT - When Mike Sutton and his wife Nannette moved into their home in the city's National Landmark District several years ago, they had no neighbors. The five houses closest to them were all vacant.

Beaufort quick facts

City population 12,788

No. of housing units 5,630

Homeownership rate, 2008-2012 60.2 percent

Residents below poverty 20.7 percent

Land area (square miles) 27.60

National Landmark District (square miles) 0.48

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, city of Beaufort

Today, the five houses are all occupied, a sixth has been built, and Sutton says, "It's come back, and it's coming back strong."

The growing interest in this small city's historic district - and the effect that could have on its future flavor - is a major reason behind the new Civic Master Plan, billed as an effort to guide development over the next century.

Sutton has more than a passing interest. He is a Beaufort councilman whose day job is restoring and renovating historic homes, while his wife runs a gift shop on Bay Street.

He is uniquely positioned to understand the paradox of Beaufort's historic district: While it's a major tourist draw and one of the state's oldest and largest - encompassing 304 acres between the river and Hamar and Boundary streets - it also contains some of the city's most blighted blocks and one neighborhood where 40 percent of parcels are vacant or abandoned.

Mayor Billy Keyserling said the planning effort has been in the works for six years and paid off in a block-by-block vision for the city's future growth.

"Our comprehensive plan, unlike the others, was a little more comprehensive," he said. "Rather than just talking about where the roads are and where the sewers are, it looks at what is environmentally, culturally and physically sustainable."

The plan also has more specific information about the city's cost of public improvements, such as new sidewalks, burying utilities and maintaining alleys. It complements the city's upcoming multi-million dollar effort to redevelop a mile-long stretch of Boundary Street that leads into downtown.

Protecting diversity, character

While the plan covers the entire city, Keyserling noted a big focus is what kind of development will be compatible as the city fills in the sizeable chunk of the greater downtown area and the Northwest Quadrant of its historic district.

This area, developed largely by blacks after the Civil War, has dozens of small vacant lots and some much larger under-used blocks, including some on King Street owned by the county.

"It's an important neighborhood because it really lends diversity," he said. "In my personal view, it should never become as gentrified as The Point (east of Cartaret Street), which is beautiful but doesn't have the diversity Beaufort is known for."

The new plan sets guidelines for height, scale and massing of new development; some would argue the city hasn't always gotten that right.

A new three-story building at one of the city's most prominent intersections, Bay and Cartaret streets, is considered too large by many, and it's still partly vacant, said Maxine Lutz, director of the Historic Beaufort Foundation.

In 1998, the National Park Service threatened to move the city's National Landmark District to a Priority 2 status - a demotion - because of inappropriate new construction, incompatible new additions on historic buildings, and other concerns.

At the time, then city manager Gary Cannon described it as a "wake-up call," adding, "A lot of little things have happened over the past 15 or 20 years, and that's added up - an addition here, construction there, a demolition here."

Even Keyserling has run into trouble. When he worked as a real estate developer a few years ago, he saw his plans to redevelop a corner lot delayed by more than a year - and at about $50,000 cost to him - because the city's historic review board didn't think his design properly fit the site.

"Preservation is very much about mass and scale and relationships to surrounding structures," he said. "A big part of the challenge is how do you get rid of the guessing game that people play with what goes where. Well, we've come up with what we think goes where and how it fits. Hopefully, that will expedite the process because there's no guessing involved, no trial and error."

The threat of 'small cuts'

While the Civic Master Plan passed, the Historic Beaufort Foundation did object in the end.

Cynthia Jenkins, former director of the Charleston Preservation Society, served as a consultant to the foundation.

"I don't think the Civic Master Plan was written from the standpoint of historic preservation," she said. "I think it was more of a New Urbanist vision than traditional historic preservation policies that reflect the character of the community."

Keyserling said the foundation's disagreement reflects less on the plan's contents than on how they will be put in place.

"We just have a difference of opinion as to whether this is a vision document or a regulatory document," he added.

Further regulations could come later this year as the city restarts its effort to pass a new code with form-based principles to ensure compatible construction in each neighborhood. Efforts to write that new code were put on hold until the plan was finished.

Lutz agreed that the plan contains "many good things," but she and other preservationists wanted to see more specifics.

"The historic district is just so important to this town, and you just can't trust that the right thing will be done," she said. "The city kind of dismisses that threat, saying, 'Oh they're not going to take away our landmark district,' but it disappears by small cuts."

By some measures, the district already has seen much erosion by small cuts - people moving out, homes left abandoned and lots left vacant.

Sutton said it shocked many officials seven years ago when they realized that parts of the National Landmark District also were among the city's most blighted spots.

He said the district's decline and emptying out had occurred over so many years, many officials didn't catch on. The city has been trying to reverse that, and its new Civic Master Plan is yet another step in that direction.

"I'm trying to put back things that are missing," he said, adding that new homes not only will benefit neighbors but also downtown businesses, who will have a new stream of customers and possible employees.

"We have some great things happening, not just from the plan but from the discussion that went along with the plan," he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.