After two of his opponents questioned the wisdom of selling town-owned tennis courts valued at more than $675,000 for $15,000, Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin said at a candidates forum Wednesday night that he has delayed a vote on the sale.
“I pulled it off the agenda because I wanted to be really clear we had all the facts,” he said after the debate. “It started to become unclear to me that what we understood was entirely correct.”
The 1.4-acre Cordillo Parkway tennis courts were a hot-button issue for the incumbent and his four opponents at the Hilton Head TEA Party forum. His challengers in the Nov. 4 election are David Bennett, Joe DuBois, Cork James and Rochelle Williams.
DuBois, a Hilton Head attorney, asked why the town planned to sell the four courts to nearby property owners for a price he considered low.
Beaufort County property records value the site at $675,600, though county assessor Ed Hughes has said that estimate is likely wrong because the county doesn’t officially appraise tax-exempt land.
The town paid $250,000 in cash to buy the courts in 2002 from Van Der Meer Tennis in a $400,000 deal. Van Der Meer wrote off the other $150,000 on its taxes, town manager Steve Riley said Wednesday night.
“Why did we buy it for so much and now we’re selling it for little?” DuBois asked. “I could have told you these courts would be a failure years ago. It’s wasteful spending.”
Town officials have said the courts are underused and in need of repairs. Estimates show it would cost $300,000 to $400,000 to rebuild them, add bathrooms and expand parking.
Bennett, chairman of the town Planning Commission, said it was the Island Recreation Association’s job to maintain the site.
“They were responsible for maintaining the courts in the first place, and they’ve failed,” he said. “This situation has been poorly managed from the get-go.”
James, former publisher of a Hilton Head online music magazine, said he would rather the town “tear down the courts and plant azaleas.”
“We need to stop development, period,” he told the audience of about 25 people.
Williams, a Hilton Head massage therapist, said any money the town receives for the courts should be used to improve parks and install sewer systems on the north end of the island.
“Let’s get all of our residents sewers, and then we can talk about what we want to do,” she said.
Homeowners associations at The Hedges and Cordillo Courts II condominium complexes next to the tennis courts have offered to buy the site.
Laughlin said he thought the property could not be developed when he voted last week to initially approve the sale.
But after talking with Riley on Wednesday, Laughlin said he’s no longer sure that’s the case. That uncertainty led to delaying the vote scheduled for Oct. 21.
“What we had been given to understand about the covenants, restrictions and constraints on the use of the property may not have been completely accurate,” he said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t. But there became a question in my mind and ... I wanted to be sure those questions were answered completely.”
Asked whether Hilton Head Town Council thought the land restrictions were hard and fast the first time it voted on the sale, he said, “We thought they were.”
Riley said he wants to make sure the deed reads so the property “will remain as open space even after we sell it.”
“We want to be able to make sure we can enforce that.”