A Hilton Head Island condominium complex's practice of dividing one rental unit into two or more has left some tenants without circuit breakers, putting renters at risk should an emergency arise, condo owners opposed to the practice said Friday.
Many owners at Oceanwalk Villas near South Forest Beach Drive have carved their two- and three-bedroom units into two or three separate units -- some lock the doors in between, others caulk them shut -- to rent them out and collect more money than they would get from one unit, according to residents and owners of nearby property.
The problem: One circuit breaker then controls multiple units. Those responding to an emergency in a unit without a circuit breaker might lose precious time reaching the electric panel. This places tenants and firefighters at risk, some owners say.
"There's no doubt this is a major safety concern," said Jim Littlefield, an Oceanwalk owner who serves on the complex's owners board.
Tenants estimate that at least half of the 79 units are divided into multiple rentals. The practice has gone on since at least the 1990s, but little has been done to address the situation, according to some of the concerned.
The owners board says the owners, most of whom live off-site, wouldn't agree to stop subdividing units. The property management firm that oversees the complex says the decision is up to the owners.
And the Town of Hilton Head Island, which acknowledges the absence of circuit breakers could be an electrical-code violation, says it lacks the authority and manpower to regulate the condominiums. It can only act if there is a complaint, town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said.
Residents and owners of nearby property also argue that the divided, efficiency-style apartments are being rented at a low price, attracting lower-income residents and criminals to the beachside community.
"These shady little lockout units have been created, and people can hide out," said Jack Daly, president of the Forest Beach Owners' Association. "The crime has definitely put it on our radar. ... It's basically being run as a slum."
A CONDOMINIUM DIVIDED
Built in the early 1980s, Oceanwalk units were designed with "mother-in-law suites," or extra living spaces with a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom that is separated by a door. The layout was meant to accommodate visiting friends and family, according to Janice Gravlin, who served on the owners board in the mid-2000s and still has a unit at the complex on 10 Lemoyne Ave.
Owners have rented out these units since at least the mid-1990s, she said. When she served on the board, some owners complained to the town about the possible electrical hazard.
"The town didn't want to fight it," she said. "And most of the board members were renting out their units, so they didn't want to do anything, either."
Hulbert, the town attorney, said it's not illegal for owners to rent out the units as long they don't build a wall or other partition to permanently separate the rooms.
"Our position is that it's one residential unit unless something is done to break up that unit on a permanent basis," he said.
What gives residents pause, however, is the lack of circuit breakers in each unit, Littlefield said.
Last year, he asked the five-member owners board to consider phasing out the separated units as tenants departed.
Littlefield said his proposal was denied. Attempts to reach other board members were unsuccessful.
Craig Fenstermaker, co-owner of IMC Resort Services, which manages Oceanwalk, said he's encouraging the board to eliminate the divided units. He says the board could call a special meeting and put it to a vote before the entire complex.
The measure would need two-thirds of Oceanwalk owners' approval to pass, Littlefield and Fenstermaker said.
"There's no way we'd get that many," Littlefield added.
Asked why he couldn't force owners to adhere to the electrical code, Fenstermaker said: "We're property managers. It's not our job to enforce the code; it's the town's job."
At the town, building inspector Bob Kline, who has never been inside the condos, said there could be a safety problem.
In a March letter to an Oceanwalk resident, Kline said the electrical panel not being "readily accessible" to those in the separated, locked-out unit was in "direct violation" of the electric code.
But Kline wrote that the Oceanwalk owners board should enforce the issue.
Hulbert said the same thing Friday.
"How do we enforce that?" Hulbert asked. "Who is in the unit? How do we know if they have a key available to get through the door if there's an emergency? It'd be tough to regulate. It seems like a property-management issue."
Kline said he's received no complaints about the locked doors from tenants but would investigate if he did.
In the case of a violation, the town would encourage the owner to install a circuit breaker for that unit or give a key to the tenant. If problems persist, the town would send a cease-and-desist letter and possibly move to fines or sue in Circuit Court, Hulbert said.
"We wouldn't be out to evict people," he said.
THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT
Some Oceanwalk residents and owners of nearby property say the cramped units are low-cost rentals -- and practically an invitation to criminals.
From January to April last year, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputies responded to 102 calls at Oceanwalk, with complaints such as narcotics use, assault, domestic violence and arrest warrants.
In the same period, deputies responded to 30 calls at neighboring 72-unit Xanadu and 27 calls at Hilton Head Cabanas, another South Forest Beach Drive-area property of similar size.
Lt. Mike Riley said Friday that he couldn't comment on why Oceanwalk had more calls than the other properties, but "there's definitely an element of people there creating calls for service."
Daly, the Forest Beach Owners' Association president, said he believes the low rent is at least part of the cause. The average one-bedroom unit starts at about $600 a month, according to online listings. A two-bedroom unit is $1,200.
To curb one-bedroom rentals, the association sent a letter in April to Oceanwalk's property managers to stop separating the units. If Oceanwalk does not, the association might take legal action, according to the letter.
"All we're asking for them is to go back to the two-bedroom units like it was planned to be," Daly said. "This will create a higher price point and a better neighborhood."
He and others were critical of the town for its lack of action.
Hulbert responded that the town doesn't want to stop people from renting property and living where they choose.
"Some of the owners like it because they can rent out additional units, have tenants and collect additional money," he said. "Other people don't like who they are renting to because it's a lower-class person. But we're not going to regulate who rents where."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.