Hilton Head board member says no conflict of interest exists

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJuly 24, 2013 

A Hilton Head Island appeals board member accused of a conflict of interest by opponents of a Sea Pines beach club plan said Wednesday he has no financial stake in the project.

And, an official with the S.C. Ethics Commission, after hearing a description of what happened at the town's Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Tuesday, said it did not appear that board member Michael Lawrence violated rules.

Lawrence abstained from one of three votes Monday concerning an appeal by Sea Pines residents opposed to the parking plan for the future $10 million club.

However, Lawrence voted on the two other motions, including one that dismissed the appeal by a 4-2 margin. Lawrence voted with the majority, but if had he abstained as he did in the other vote, the motion would have failed, according to town attorney Brian Hulbert.

Lawrence is a former Sea Pines Resort president and was the broker-in-charge of Sea Pines Real Estate. Lawrence said he is "essentially retired" from the real estate firm. Wendy Corbitt said Wednesday she has been broker-in-charge since 2010, and Lawrence continues to consult on commercial real estate deals.

Lawrence's wife also is an agent for the firm, which has offices in the current beach club that will be demolished to make way for the new one. The firm has requested to have offices in the future club, according to Steve Birdwell, president of Sea Pines Resort.

The firm pays the resort a portion of its sales for use of Sea Pines' trademarks, Corbitt said.

Sue Ehmke, who filed the appeal June 28 on behalf of herself and 26 other Sea Pines residents, requested during the appeals board meeting Monday that Lawrence recuse himself from discussing and voting on the measure. She and others argue the town did not apply the correct rules for parking when approving the plans.

The majority of the board said town rules do not allow Ehmke to bring the appeal because she does not live within 350 feet of the contested property, nor would she be harmed by the plan.

During the meeting, Lawrence denied he had a conflict of interest.

"We've faced this matter before on several matters involving Sea Pines," he said. "I've received legal counsel, and they have assured me that I am appropriate to continue to hear matters involving Sea Pines."

In a brief interview Wednesday, Lawrence said he abstained from one vote Monday because he "didn't want to be the deciding vote in the key vote" to allow the residents' appeal to be heard.

Board members are subject to state ethics laws, according to Cathy Hazelwood, an attorney for the S.C. Ethics Commission. Those laws ban public officials, members and employees from making or influencing governmental decisions in which they have an economic interest, the commission's website says.

Hazelwood said a description of Lawrence's situation did not sound like a violation because there appears to be no "clear economic interest" for him.

The votes Monday by the board were as follows:

  • A motion to remove all 26 residents, besides Ehmke, from the appeal passed unanimously, with Lawrence voting "yes."

  • A motion to allow the appeal to be heard Aug. 26 failed, 3-2, with Lawrence abstaining.

  • A motion to dismiss the appeal passed, 4-2, with Lawrence voting "yes."

  • Lawrence said he voted in favor of the two other motions because he knew he wasn't a swing vote.

    However, had Lawrence abstained from the motion to dismiss the appeal, it would not have passed, according to town attorney Hulbert, because a four-vote majority was needed. An abstention essentially equates a "no" vote, he said, and the board's seventh member was absent. The board would have then had to reach a four-vote majority on whether Emhke had a right to appeal.

    Hulbert said it is up to individual board members to decide whether to abstain or recuse themselves.

    Karl Engelman, Sea Pines resident who opposes the beach club parking plans and is listed on Ehmke's appeal, said there is "no question" about Lawrence having a conflict of interest.

    He said Lawrence's actions "shocked a lot of people."

    Engelman said members of the resident group plan to meet this week with an attorney to discuss whether to appeal to the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas. Engelman said residents probably wouldn't appeal if they don't think they can afford it, but he added that the group already has received "thousands of dollars" in pledges to pay for court and attorney fees.

    Engelman said the group might also consider making a complaint about Lawrence to the state Ethics Commission.

    Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian

    Related content:

    Sea Pines Beach Club opponents' appeal dismissed by Hilton Head board, July 23, 2013 Sea Pines Resort hires Charleston law firm to fight beach club appeal, July 16, 2013

    Sea Pines residents appeal proposed beach club plan, June 28, 2013

    The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

    Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service