In case of fire: Hilton Head asks residents to waive right to sue over lack of hydrants

Why a lack of fire hydrants is dangerous for many northern Beaufort County homeowners

Many homes in northern Beaufort County aren't built near fire hydrants. One of those homes was lost to a fire in May — and two dogs died. Here's what happened during that fire— and the impact the lack of hydrants had on fighting the flames.
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Many homes in northern Beaufort County aren't built near fire hydrants. One of those homes was lost to a fire in May — and two dogs died. Here's what happened during that fire— and the impact the lack of hydrants had on fighting the flames.

Some Hilton Head residents trying to build on their land have been offered a ultimatum: Don’t build if there’s not a fire hydrant nearby, or hold the Town of Hilton Head Island harmless if you do and your house burns down.

The ultimatum was born out of the realization that several homes on the island’s north end are outside of the preferred radius of 500 feet from a fire hydrant.

In the last two years, public and private agencies have partnered to put in hydrants to benefit the most densely populated of these areas. In 2018, they installed nine fire hydrants, according to Pete Nardi, general manager of the Hilton Head Public Service District.

The partnership is the result of a complicated arrangement regarding Hilton Head’s fire hydrants. Hilton Head PSD is responsible for the hydrant and the water that flows through it, and the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue is responsible for using it to put out fires.

In bigger governments, a public works department is likely to have control of all three of those variables, town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said.

Fire officials said Monday the new waiver is a sort of compromise.

Instead of denying building permits, the waiver “makes sure the property owner understands” they’re taking a risk by building outside the radius and “creates a history” between the landowner and the fire department, according to Fire Chief Brad Tadlock and town officials.

“The fire department was trying to do a favor for those who wanted to build,” Hulbert said. “It’s safer to say ‘no’ until we get there (with a hydrant), but they’re trying to take that next step to let them take the risk. But you can’t then sue us because we don’t have this in place yet.”

The Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Taskforce discusses fire hydrant location restrictions with town staff attorney Brian Hulbert, far right, and Town of Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue Chief Brad Tadlock and Fire Marshal Joheida Fister. Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Tadlock added that the fire department can get most homes on Hilton Head under 1,000 feet from a fire hydrant — double the preferred radius — in “probably another year.”

Nardi, who said he was not informed of Monday’s meeting, said the PSD was not involved in drafting the waiver.

“As the density increases, these are the services that have to follow,” he said.

‘Whose responsibility is it?’

Some community leaders look at the waiver more like signing their rights away.

“I thought the document was a pure bad document,” Palmer Simmons said at Monday’s meeting of the Gullah-Geechee land and cultural preservation taskforce. “You’ve given the fire department, the town and whoever else a release if you happen to have a fire and your house burns down.”

He asked, “Whose responsibility is it to protect the citizens?”

When Hilton Head was incorporated as a “limited services government” in 1983, it did so to provide no services and own very few roads. Planned unit development builders were responsible for installing fire hydrants to serve the gated communities.

But an individual landowner cannot always afford to do the same. A hydrant can cost between $5,000 and $8,000 if there’s a water main readily accessible and between $10,000 and $15,000 if there isn’t, Tadlock said.

Native islanders — who cite restrictive zoning that slows development of the north end — looking build for their families or renters say hydrants should be available whether there are 10 or 100 people living nearby.

“The distinction needs to be made between a developer and a citizen,” Simmons said. “We’re talking about the average citizen who wants a decent place to live. I don’t think putting hydrants in wherever is going beyond (the town and fire rescue’s) duty to protect.”

The lack of availability of fire hydrants was subject of an investigation by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette newspapers in 2018 after a fatal fire killed two children in Seabrook. Their home was miles away from the nearest hydrant, according to the report.

A fire ravages a mobile home in Seabrook on September 8, 2017. The fire killed three residents, including 10-year-old Ja’kyla Reid and 4-year-old Jaylyn Sanders-Nelson. Burton Fire District

What’s next?

Tensions during Monday’s conversation were elevated when Hulbert referred to people outside gated communities as “you people,” before quickly correcting himself to say “your communities.”

“I don’t care what you’re trying to say, that was offensive, sir,” resident Morris Campbell told the taskforce and Hulbert. “This is Hilton Head Island. There is no ‘you people.’”

Hulbert apologized after the meeting adjourned. On Tuesday, Town Manager Steve Riley said he’d investigate the incident at the meeting of the Hilton Head Town Council.

The matter of the waiver hasn’t been forwarded to town council, but the chairman of the committee, Lavon Stevens, suggested Simmons meet with town and fire rescue officials to discuss the waiver and make necessary changes.

That group will also work to identify native islander properties without proper access to fire hydrants and send that list to the PSD, Stevens said.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.