Jacqueline Heiss scans the Broad Creek marsh and sees an eyesore.
An unfinished, four-story building stands between the tidal creek and her balcony at Edgewater condominiums.
Covered in weeds and inhabited by wildlife, the building has sat vacant since Edgewater's developer went bankrupt in 2006.
For years, residents have tried to get the building torn down, calling it a danger, a snake pit, a blemish that lowers property values.
The Town of Hilton Head Island seemed to favor demolition, but two weeks ago it told residents it reversed course when the building's owner, Ephesian Ventures, produced an engineering report that said the structure posed no risk.
Edgewater residents disagree and are suing Ephesian, which bought the unfinished property out of foreclosure.
The Nevada-based company wants to develop next to Edgewater. Plans presented to the town in 2011 show eight multi-family buildings on land owned by the company. However, K. Michael Barfield, an attorney for Ephesian, said in an email that there "are no current plans to develop" the Ephesian property. He did not address the 2011 plans on file with the town.
Edgewater residents fear timeshares will rise on the property, according to court documents. They say increased traffic from such development would disrupt the serene gated community they moved into a decade ago.
"This place was designed to be a residential community," said Bill Eisenman, president of Edgewater's homeowners association. "We've had this abandoned building sitting in our way. Next we could have timeshares. ... I'm not saying anything bad about timeshare owners, but we're talking about many more people having access to a small community."
TOUGH SELL FOR RESIDENTS
The structure sits on 23 acres once owned by Edgewater's developer, Willis Baird. The building was under construction when he went bankrupt and would have been the second of six luxury condos planned along Broad Creek.
The only completed condo, on seven acres, went to the homeowners association. Ephesian bought the remaining 16 acres, including the unfinished building and a swimming pool, for $9 million in 2008.
Residents say Ephesian let its property go to waste. The building went untouched; landscaping was ignored; the swimming pool became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
"It would make great sense, being neighbors, that they would act as companions here," said Frank Nero, a homeowners association board member.
The homeowners sued in 2011. They asked, among other things, that the incomplete building be torn down.
Ephesian considered demolition. In a June letter to the town, Ephesian attorney Chester Williams of Hilton Head said that as part of a settlement being negotiated with the homeowners association, the company would "agree to quickly apply for a permit to demolish" the building. Reached Thursday, Williams referred questions to Barfield, the attorney representing Ephesian in court.
But the residents say the settlement never came because Ephesian refused to say when it would demolish the building. Williams' letter to the town said Ephesian reconsidered demolition because negotiations stalled.
The sides haven't talked in months, and owners are weary. They say Ephesian has never explained why it won't tear down the building, which is not featured in its site plans.
Heiss, who wants to sell her condo, said she's had three real estate agents tell her "the building makes it impossible to sell."
"Buyers look out the window and they see it. ... There is too much on the market for anyone to want to deal with that."
TOWN DECIDES NOT TO DEMOLISH
The residents' opinion was shared by town building officials.
In letters to Williams, building official Bob Klein said the unfinished structure was "unsafe and therefore declared to be a public nuisance."
Klein said leaving the building partially finished, with steel tendons exposed, gave him "grave concerns about the viability of the structure."
He said it should be renovated or demolished.
The town scheduled a hearing in June for Ephesian to explain why the building should remain.
Before the hearing was held, Ephesian paid an engineering firm to study the building at the town's request.
The firm, Thomas & Hutton, concluded that most of the structure was stable and "found no evidence of potential collapse."
Convinced by the report, the town said the building could remain as long as its construction permit is active. The permit expires in 2017 and can be renewed.
Town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said the Thomas & Hutton report carried more weight because it was completed by an engineer with more expertise than town building officials.
"We relied on it and think it was produced in good faith," he said. "The report said it's a relatively safe building, and we believe there's no immediate danger of collapse."
As for the property's future, the 2011 plans for the site filed with the town include 283 multi-family units. Original plans for Edgewater had called for 148 units.
"That's a big increase in residents, especially part-time residents," said Eisenman, the homeowners president. "I don't think our one gate can handle it."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.
- Hilton Head: Metropolitan Hotel must fix or demolish abandoned building, Aug. 7, 2014
- Hilton Head would stop regulating timeshares under code overhaul, Aug. 23, 2014