Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett is calling for the town to ban split units in the Oceanwalk and Xanadu villas buildings on South Forest Beach Drive that he fears cause a public safety problem and are a haven for seedy characters.
About 48 of the 151 three-bedroom condos in the two buildings have been subdivided into two individual rentals -- in most cases separating the "mother-in-law suite" bedroom by a door with a deadbolt, several Forest Beach residents claim.
For years, residents have begged the town to prohibit the practice, claiming it creates a fire hazard, potentially violates electrical codes and attracts unsavory renters to the "off-the-grid" unregulated apartments, they have said. The units are often are rented by cash only and the occupants don't have to give a legal name for utilities or pass a background check, said Bruce Bartow, an Oceanwalk owner working to ban the splitting practice.
"Criminals can hide in plain sight there," Bartow said. "You've got a major problem right in the heart of your premier tourist district, and it starts with Oceanwalk."
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But over the past 18 months, officials have struggled to give a straight answer on what -- if anything -- the town can do to limit the practice.
Bennett said Wednesday he has had enough.
"This is not a time for doing nothing as the town and just idly sitting back," he said. "This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy; beauracracy getting in the way of getting something done.
"I just think this practice reflects poorly on us as a community, us as a town, and personally, I'm embarrassed by it," he said.
On Tuesday, the town's Construction Board of Adjustments and Appeals upheld town building official Bob Klein's determination that four split units at Xanadu comply with electrical code standards.
Klein ruled in June that the "lock-out" units were not technically separate apartments under building and electric codes and therefore do not violate town rules, meaning the town cannot regulate the splitting, he said.
"I'm the building official; I'm not a police officer," Klein said. "I can only determine what's in the building codes, not who stays in what unit and how."
Forest Beach Owners Association president Jack Daly and Xanadu Villas owners Henry Sanders and Tom Weatherhead appealed that decision. They argued that splitting units limits ready access to the apartment's electric panel in an attempt to get the town building inspectors to mandate that modified units be returned to the original, three-bedroom layout.
The board disagreed and sided with Klein's reading of the codes, but members conceded that the split units could violate Oceanwalk and Xanadu's property rules.
"Isn't that a regime thing instead of a construction board issue?" board member Michael Lynes asked. "They have to enforce their rules. We can't enforce them for them."
But self-policing by leadership at Oceanwalk and Xanadu has been spotty, if not nonexistent, and the splitting problem continues to get worse, said Sanders, Weatherhead and Bruce Bartow, an Oceanwalk owner helping lead the fight.
Earlier this year, BB&T Carswell Insurance Services threatened to drop its coverage of Xanadu Villas over what it perceived as fire code violations in the split units. After several extensions, the regime ultimately had to switch to an out-of-state insurance company to secure new coverage, according to Daly and Sanders' appeal.
The concerns have grabbed the attention of Bennett and council members Kim Likins and Tom Lennox, who both represent the area.
"In a perfect world, their organizational documents for their regime would give them the authority to handle business down there in a right manner," Bennett said. "That isn't the case. So the question is, then what?"
If the units don't violate existing town codes, then the council could consider altering or supplementing the codes, Bennett suggested. Over the coming days, he and council members will brainstorm possible solutions, he added.
In the mean time, the Forest Beach residents will continue their town codes appeals against the split units before considering formal legal action, Daly said. Sanders and Weatherhead also will continue meeting with Bennett, Likins and Lennox to address the issue, they said.
"We're trying to exhaust all our administrative appeals first," he said. "This is such a real issue and a big issue ... We're fighting an injustice. There's a reason to fight this fight."