Hilton Head works to make island more welcoming to car dealerships, but dealer says it might be too late

Zoning changes intended to draw car dealers back to Hilton Head Island might be enticing in theory, but local auto dealers say it is too late.

For years, auto dealerships trickled off the island in search of more land, better visibility and less-restrictive business guidelines.

Now, town staff recommends adjusting guidelines that would make it easier for dealerships to move onto Hilton Head.

The change would reduce the space required between auto sales and residences from 1,500 to 500 feet. The town Planning and Development Standards Committee recommended a 400-foot separation requirement.

Staff recommends dealerships be able to locate in areas with low traffic, such as Hunter and Cardinal roads. Dealers now are limited to main thoroughfares and high-traffic areas.

Staff also recommends dealerships be no larger than seven acres.

The Town Council will vote on the new guidelines Tuesday.

"I can't imagine a new car dealer would move back to the island," said Bill Head, owner of H&H Auto Service on Hunter Road, one of three dealerships that remain on the island. Only one, Modern Classic Motors, sells new cars. H&H Auto and Shirley Motors sell used cars.

"Competition is good, but property on Hilton Head Island is not cheap, and to make it in car sales, you have to sell quite a few cars, which requires a lot of space," Head said.

State Department of Motor Vehicles requirements, which issues dealer licenses, limit sales in certain commercial areas. They also hinder dealerships from relocating to the island, Head said.

"The town issues business licenses, but that doesn't allow you to sell cars," he said.

Town planners say the change would create as many as 113 possible locations for dealerships. Currently, there are no spots where a dealership could open and satisfy island rules, said Teri Lewis, town land management official.

Adult entertainment establishments, liquor stores, nightclubs or tattoo parlors don't face separation requirements as stringent as those for auto sales under town ordinance.

Although the change might not attract large car dealers to the island, "it at least provides flexibility if somebody wants to," Lewis said.

No dealership has recently expressed interest in coming to the island, but the town received inquiries during the past several years, she said.

The amendment is one of several proposed land-use changes designed to attract and retain businesses.

In that regard, Head said he supports the change.

"Maybe this is the step in the right direction in terms of signaling to small businesses that the town is willing to be more accommodating," he said. "We've lost a lot of small business on the island over the years."