‘It was a shock:’ Small island communities in the dark on Hilton Head annexation

Janet Miller was 3,000 miles away from her home near Hilton Head Island when she found out the neighborhood next to hers was starting to lobby for her community to be annexed by the town.

Reading The Island Packet’s May 13 report that Mariner’s Cove could be annexed “was a shock,” she said. “That was the first time anyone — the board, the owners, anyone in Mariner’s Cove — had heard about the town’s meeting with Windmill Harbour.”

Windmill Harbour, a gated community with 348 homes, has met a few times with leaders from The Town of Hilton Head Island about the possibility of the town annexing about 500 properties in Windmill Harbour, Mariner’s Cove, Blue Heron Point and the Hilton Head Harbour RV Resort and Marina.

Windmill Harbour initiated the effort, but the other three neighborhoods were not consulted, residents say.

Last week, Mariner’s Cove, a neighborhood of 40 villas on Hog Island, directly beside the Hilton Head Island bridges, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the town to remove its name from the list, according to the board of directors and Assistant Town Manager Josh Gruber.

“We asked for Mariner’s Cove to be removed from the petition and set up meetings so we can hear from the town what their thinking is,” Miller said.

Looking east from the mainland of Bluffton shows Hog and Jenkins islands. Property on the islands could be annexed by the Town of Hilton Head Island. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

This week, board members at Windmill Harbour are meeting with town officials to “reset the stage,” consider removing the three other neighborhoods and drafting a new petition so that only Windmill Harbour residents would vote on annexation, according to an email from the board to property owners.

To get the issue on the ballot, the petition needs the signatures of 25 percent of voters in the area affected by annexation, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

If the referendum passes by a majority of registered voters on Jenkins and Hog islands, it will go to Hilton Head Island Town Council to consider an annexation ordinance, according to the municipal association.

Revisiting annexation

The petition for the ballot measure started in Windmill Harbour on April 22, according to leaders in the community. The board of directors announced it would oversee the “distribution, signing and collection of that petition,” according to Windmill Harbour resident Lynn Wiggins.

But neighboring communities weren’t aware of that effort.

“We have about 40 members, and I cannot identify anyone who had mentioned annexation, had heard about a meeting, or had been to a meeting,” Miller said of Mariner’s Cove.

“An affirmative vote for annexation by Windmill Harbour residents will likely bind the other three communities into an annexation they do not want,” Wiggins wrote in a letter to state Sen. Tom Davis.

Two meetings were organized with town staff and residents — most of whom were from Windmill Harbour and had received just a few days’ notice.

Windmill Harbour Marina.jpg

But town staff has repeated that it does not push for annexation; the municipal association’s annexation processes are citizen-led.

“We’re not driving this process,” Gruber said. “The town has no input.”

The circulating petition, although requested from Windmill Harbour, was produced by the town using a municipal association template, Gruber said.

He added that all of Jenkins and Hog islands were included to avoid inconsistency.

“The more donut holes you create, the more difficult it is to provide emergency services,” he said. “The thought was, ‘if we’re going to do this, then we should probably include everyone.’”

Emergency services are one of the main draws to being part of the town, according to residents at the May informational meeting. If the area annexed, 911 calls would be answered by Hilton Head Fire Rescue instead of Bluffton units— which are across the bridge.

Other considerations for the island communities include taxes, U.S. 278 and Jenkins Island corridor projects and stormwater management.

William Hilton Parkway at Windmill Harbour. File photo

But the municipal association says the town should play a more active role than Hilton Head is taking.

“Elected municipal officials should be actively involved in annexation efforts,” the annexation handbook says. “If appropriate, council should conduct public hearings after providing appropriate notice.”

The path chosen by Windmill Harbour to getting annexation on the ballot does not require a public hearing, according to the handbook.

What’s next?

The meeting between town officials and Windmill Harbour may lead to a new petition, which would need the signatures of 25 percent of affected voters.

All questions for the November ballot must be submitted to the Beaufort County Board of Elections by Aug. 15, Gruber 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.