Hilton Head land swap with Habitat for Humanity draws complaints

The Town of Hilton Head Island will try to trade 14 acres off Marshland Road to Habitat for Humanity, despite nearby residents' concerns.

The Town Council voted 6-0, with John Safay absent, to begin handing over the land between Leg O' Mutton Road and Mathews Drive to Habitat in exchange for the nonprofit agency paying for a road and utilities to the site. Habitat will seek state and federal grants to pay for the work, which expected to cost more than $1 million, said Pat Wirth, president and CEO of Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity.

About 20 to 40 homes are planned, Wirth said. Home construction probably would not start for at least a year, she said.

Habitat built two homes on the island, in 1996 and 2000, but land prices forced it to focus its efforts in Bluffton, where land has been donated, Wirth said.

The town purchased the property in 2001 for about $1 million. The land was one of several marshfront parcels bought by the town for neighborhood parks, but enthusiasm for that effort has waned, town officials said.

Boyd Laughlin owns property next to the site and questioned whether the housing project would generate enough taxes to justify its impact on town services.

He said he has worked for a year and a half to put in a road so he can build a house off Marshland Road.

"I have no grievances with Habitat for Humanity," but the development would "devastate property values" and increase density in the area, Laughlin said. A handful of homes are already nearby along an unpaved road.

Ted Behling, a member of the town's Design and Review Board, said residents with homes next to the site assumed public money would be used to buy land and create a park or open space. The change of plans is unfair to them, he said.

Mayor Tom Peeples said the town was never interested in the land Habitat would use; rather, its purchase was necessary to acquire the marshfront property.

"Also, this is a trade, not a gift," Peeples said. "I don't think we can find a better use of (this land.) There is nothing better than helping people with a hand up."

Habitat directors and residents said applicants are screened carefully and pay property taxes. For example, the 74 Habitat owners in Bluffton together pay about $40,000 a year in property taxes and $90,000 a year in insurance costs. Wirth said the two families already living in Habitat homes on the island are "thriving."

Bluffton resident and Habitat homeowner Lillie Varner said she is a "decent person who, because of unwise decisions early in life," was not able to save for retirement and could not afford a normal home. A four-bedroom Habitat home sells for about $70,000.

"Habitat for Humanity is a blessing for me," Varner said. "We are normal people, not riffraff. My home is well-maintained. There are lots of people on this island that could benefit from a Habitat home, and I hope opposition will not keep people from enjoying a better life, as I have."

A contract will later go before town council for approval. Rezoning also may be required to allow proper density for the project, Peeples said.