Hilton Head's efforts to get owners to spruce up properties draws fire

A proposal to require property owners to cover unsightly blemishes on commercial buildings has ruffled some Hilton Head Island residents and officials.

The town Planning Commission decided last week to send the plan back to staff for revision after some raised concerns that enforcement would be too subjective and the proposal wouldn't deal with the underlying causes of deteriorated properties.

Others said the proposal doesn't go far enough in requiring owners to spruce up.

The amendment to town code would broaden the definition of a public nuisance to include deteriorated commercial and multifamily residential properties, buildings, structures and outdoor equipment that negatively affect the value of surrounding properties.

The focus would be on the appearance of the property, not safety. Town building and fire codes already deal with safety hazards.

"It's more to address unsightly problems that are not quite unsafe but getting there and are really beginning to detract from the economic value of the island," said Jill Foster, deputy director of community development.

For example, a commercial building off Office Park Road has a staircase with no steps. The property, though, complies with the town's fire and building codes, partly because the staircase is blocked from use, Foster said.

Other examples of violations include peeled siding, holes in overhangs that allow animals and rainwater to get into buildings, rotted columns and potholes.

Spanish Wells resident and attorney Chester C. Williams objected to the proposal.

"There are no objective standards in this," Williams said, adding that the town would turn code enforcement officers into "aesthetic police."

The amendment is based on the International Property Management Code, which has been upheld in court and used by communities across the country, said town attorney Brian Hulbert.

Property owners would have 15 days to clean the property or face a possible misdemeanor. If the problem persists and is deemed a public nuisance, the town could enter the property, remove the nuisance and bill the owner. The town also could issue an injunction to prevent occupancy or use of the property, Hulbert said.

Of the 1,000 code-enforcement complaints the town averages each year, 200 are given a warning and 25 to 35 are given citations, staff said. The rest are found not to be violations or are fixed.

"Our goal here is with compliance and not necessarily slapping penalties upon people," Foster said. "Issuing tickets is the last method we want to use."

Commissioner and mayoral candidate Tom Crews said the town is overreaching, and it should instead provide incentives for owners to improve properties.

Other commissioners said the proposal does not go far enough, asking town staff to include overgrown weeds and unpainted buildings.

Kumar Viswanathan, owner of Asset Management Associates, contends the town is attempting to put "lipstick on a pig."

"We need to deal with the fundamental cause and long-term trends" behind poor maintenance, he said, such as low occupancy and foreclosures.

Foster, though, said some properties are occupied and owned by local residents who have the means to make repairs but have chosen not to over the years.

The issue is expected to return to the Planning Commission next month.