There’s a point on the Hilton Head Island bridge where drivers pass a sign that reads “Hilton Head Island Town Limit.”
The sign is lying — sort of.
The road itself is within town limits, but not much beyond there is.
Now, change may be coming.
Town staff members have held two informational meetings in Windmill Harbour — a gated community at the base of the bridge — to discuss an annexation measure that would bring Jenkins and Hog islands into the incorporated town.
A petition has even started going around to get that measure on the ballot this year.
Don Baldwin, president of the Windmill Harbour Board of Directors, said annexation talks have been happening for years.
“This is not a new subject,” he said. “It comes and goes. We started right before Hurricane Matthew (in 2016) and then obviously that distracted everybody.”
He said the board is helping to facilitate the talks, but has no official opinion.
It’ll be the voters in the four affected communities — Blue Heron Point, the Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort and Marina, Windmill Harbour and Mariner’s Cove — who will have to decide what happens next.
“The town seems, in my opinion, pretty reasonable in their approach. They are definitely not forcing it upon us, and they want it in such a way that the citizens want it,” Baldwin said. “But, there needs to be some additional information sessions.”
Several town-owned parcels of land are in the area, according to town property maps.
What’s so great about being in the town?
The major issues for property owners thinking about incorporation are the same issues a home buyer would raise when moving to a new town: taxes, emergency services, stormwater management and building rules.
Right now, the area is serviced by the Bluffton Township Fire District.
So if there’s a traffic jam on one of the bridges, it could make response time slower.
Town of Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue is a backup provider for that area, according to town officials. If Bluffton units can’t get to Jenkins Island quickly, Hilton Head trucks head to the scene.
Annexation would mean that Hilton Head Fire Rescue would be the primary provider of emergency services — those units would be the first call to the scene, not the second.
Taxes between the town and the county are pretty similar, according to information presented to residents at the community meetings.
According to publicly available tax statements, Windmill Harbour residents pay the exact same tax rate to seven of the nine entities on a typical bill for a Hilton Head resident:
- County operations
- County debt
- Rural and critical lands
- School operations (if applicable)
- School debt
- The Hilton Head Public Service District
- The municipal/ district fee.
They miss general taxes paid to the Town of Hilton Head Island — charged at a rate of 0.02836 times the taxable value of the property— and the county fee, which was under $10 for most taxpayers last year.
However, Windmill Harbour residents pay fire district taxes at a rate of 0.02574 times the taxable value of the property that Hilton Head residents don’t pay, according to publicly available tax records.
The Jenkins Island area has been a vocal advocate for an approved road project that would make turning onto U.S. 278 safer.
Leaders feared the project’s incorporation into the larger U.S. 278 corridor study from Moss Creek to Squire Pope Road would delay it, and Windmill Harbour appointed a transportation committee to keep county leaders focused on the project.
“This very critical project, which affects the safety of everyone transiting the Jenkins Island corridor, has been pushed back three more times: to December 2018, March 2019, and now June 2019 ... Accidents happen frequently and it’s only a matter of time before a fatality occurs. Stop deliberating and start construction,” committee member Nick Akers wrote in a letter to the editor of the Island Packet.
Since then, Baldwin said the communities have had weekly conference calls with county leaders about the project, and incorporation would help keep the pressure on.
“We’re finally at a point where things are progressing” he said. “We have just been so frustrated because they promised two years ago to start that project and nothing’s happened, so we’re trying to hold their feet to the fire.”
What big differences would there be?
If the neighborhoods were incorporated, they’d have to follow the municipal code of Hilton Head as well as the land management ordinance, according to deputy director of community development Teri Lewis.
That could affect everything from the many businesses that operate out of homes on Jenkins Island to which entity is in charge of lowering lagoon levels before storms.
Although there have been two community meetings about those possibilities, resident Arthur Weitzenfeld said town officials couldn’t provide a ton of answers.
“They seem to be saying ‘vote yourselves in and then we will take a look at what your zoning would be and what your water setbacks would be,’” Weitzenfeld said. “Why can’t they tell us what would happen? They won’t put it in writing.”
Changes in the setback rules for properties could greatly affect what would happen to property owners if their home were destroyed by another hurricane, Weitzenfeld said.
Baldwin their property could be rendered useless if Hilton Head’s rules that govern how close an owner can build to their neighbor or water are too strict.
Town staff has suggested a grandfather clause that would protect the existing setbacks on Jenkins Island in the event of incorporation, but nothing concrete is proposed yet.
Property owners in Windmill Harbour are also keeping an eye on stormwater negotiations between the town and gated communities.
Although those conversations were paused in February, giving up control of the drainage in such a low-lying area would be important to consider before voting, Weitzenfeld said.
The residents’ petition needs 25 percent of all eligible voters to sign on. After that, the petition would be taken to Hilton Head Island Town Council for a vote, according to state law.
If council approves the petition, it would then head to the South Carolina Election Commission, which would organize an election where voters in the area would be able to vote for or against annexation.