Two apartments at Oceanwalk Villas are being investigated for possible violations, after the Town of Hilton Head Island received complaints that each had been divided permanently into separate units.
The town's lead building inspector says he will investigate whether the doors between the split units have been caulked shut and whether any of those units do not have electrical circuit-breaker panels.
Town code prohibits sealing the doors between split units, lead building inspector Bob Klein said Monday. The code also requires that residents have access to an electrical panel, he added.
If tenants don't have access to an electrical panel, they and firefighters responding to their units in an emergency could be at risk, Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division Chief Lavarn Lucas said Monday.
The town received the two complaints in May from prospective buyers of the condos, which are on Lemoyne Avenue in the Forest Beach area. One complaint said a refrigerator covered a door that had been caulked shut.
Klein sent letters in May to the owners of the two units and said he plans to follow up this week. He said he has not been inside the rentals, so he did not know whether there were violations.
If there is a violation, the town would "encourage" the owner to install an electrical panel for that unit or provide a key so the tenant can access the apartment with the panel, town attorney Brian Hulbert said. If problems persist, the town would send a cease-and-desist letter and possibly issue fines or sue in Circuit Court, Hulbert said.
Michael Powers, a real estate agent working to sell one of the units that received a complaint, said that if a door had been sealed shut, he was "not aware" of it. He referred questions to the unit's owner, Russ Gallagher, who also serves on Oceanwalk's owners board. Attempts Monday to reach Gallagher were unsuccessful.
The other unit complained about is registered to Len and Rose Bottomley, according to Beaufort County property records. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.
Last week, several Oceanwalk owners and nearby residents raised concerns about the practice of dividing units.
Many owners of the condos near South Forest Beach Drive have carved their two- and three-bedroom units into two or three separate apartments -- most lock the doors in between -- to rent them out and collect more money than they would get from one unit, according to opponents of the practice.
The town has said it's legal for owners to rent out the units, as long they don't build a wall or caulk shut the doors to permanently separate the units.
What concerns residents, however, is the lack of electrical panels in each unit, according to owners board member Jim Littlefield.
On Monday, Chief Lucas said the absence of electrical panels in each unit would make a firefighter's job more difficult, although he had not incurred such a case.
For example, if a faulty wire was smoldering inside a wall, it would be easier to shut down the circuit panel rather than break through the wall to find the smoking wire, he said. But that panel would be hard to find and shut down if it were in a different apartment, he said.
"Our ability to fight a fire depends on how quickly we can locate the source and stop the combustion process," he said.
The setup also creates problems in instances where there is no fire, but a tenant wants to check the fuse box, he said.
"You aren't going to give a key for one occupant to enter another occupant's unit unannounced," he said.
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.