When a developer began talks with Hilton Head Island officials earlier this year about the town annexing Bay Point Island to build an upscale resort, Beaufort County leaders found themselves without a seat at the table.
Beaufort County Council members want the state to help make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The council approved a measure earlier this week that asks state lawmakers to tweak annexation laws to give counties a voice in the discussion of when a municipality seeks to absorb unincorporated land such as Bay Point Island, a 347-acre undeveloped area that sits just north of the Broad River from Hilton Head Island.
The counties have no legal standing whatsoever in regard to annexation.
Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart
A private property owner can typically ask to be annexed into a municipality such as Hilton Head Island without any input from county officials.
Current law “favors the municipalities 100 percent,” County Councilman Bill McBride said earlier this week.
Councilman Jerry Stewart agreed.
“The counties have no legal standing whatsoever in regard to annexation,” he said. “(State annexation laws) are antiquated and totally outside of reality with what is happening.”
The current system creates a problem because properties annexed into towns and cities often continue to rely on the county for public services, Stewart said.
“Taxpayers in the unincorporated parts of the county subsidize activities” in annexed areas, he said.
Another concern is the concept of “zone shopping,” Stewart said.
Zone shopping occurs when a property owner seeks to be annexed into a municipality with looser regulations.
For example, if the owners of Bay Point Island wanted to build a development larger than what is permitted under Beaufort County zoning rules, they could look to a municipality that may be willing to craft regulations more favorable to the property owner.
“Property owners are certainly aware of (the ability to zone shop), and they take advantage of it,” Stewart said.
Councilman Brian Flewelling said county leaders began discussing the idea of lobbying the state for a seat at the annexation table long before the Bay Point Island situation came to light.
I am always adamantly opposed to taking private property rights away.
Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch
Regardless of when the conversation started, most county leaders have voiced support for a more hands-on approach to the annexation process.
But the concept isn’t unanimous.
Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch called the county’s decision to ask the state for annexation law changes a “direct rebuke of Bay Point” that threatens private property rights.
“I am always adamantly opposed to taking private property rights away,” she said.
It is too soon to know how state lawmakers will react to the county’s request, but Councilwoman Alice Howard said she expects the S.C. Association of Counties to support the lobbying effort.