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Sea Pines Beach Club opponents' appeal dismissed by Hilton Head board

An artist's rendering of the proposed Sea Pines Beach Club.
An artist's rendering of the proposed Sea Pines Beach Club. Submitted

Residents opposed to plans for a new Sea Pines beach club have been turned away before they even had a chance to argue their case before a town board.

The Hilton Head Island Board of Zoning Appeals said Monday that resident Sue Ehmke, who filed the appeal June 28 and objects to the club's parking plan, has no standing in the matter because she lives too far from the site of the proposed club on North Sea Pines Drive. The town's land management ordinance says a resident must live within 350 feet of a contested site or be otherwise affected by it to appeal.

Ehmke said she lives about three miles from the proposed $10 million club.

She and other residents say the new club does not provide enough parking for beachgoers. Sea Pines Resort representatives say other parking arrangements will be made to accommodate beach traffic.

The board voted 4-2 to dismiss Ehmke's appeal, which was to be heard Aug. 26. Board members David Fingerhut and Jeffrey North dissented; member Stephen Murphy was absent.

Ehmke's appeal included the names of 26 other residents -- some who live within the 350-foot zone -- but the board determined she did not have the required written permissions to represent them. The board voted unanimously to dismiss those residents from the appeal.

The votes followed a request earlier this month from Pratt-Thomas Walker, a Charleston-based law firm hired by Sea Pines Resort, asking the board to dismiss Ehmke's appeal.

Appeals board chairman Peter Kristian said it was the first time in his nine years on the board that an appeal has been struck down before being heard. He said the board based its decision on the rules governing appeals, not the merit of the appeal itself.

Dissenting board members said Ehmke would be harmed by the club's lack of parking, and her appeal should be heard.

Ehmke's appeal says the town applied the wrong parking rules when approving the plans June 14.

Town staff classified the club as an "active park," which allowed the resort to submit a plan with 158 parking spaces.

Her appeal calls for the club to be classified as a "commercial space," requiring at least 200 parking spaces.

The club would include two dining areas and bars, a private event space, and retail and office space, in addition to showers, bathrooms and changing areas.

Karl Engelman, who opposes the beach club plans and is listed on Ehmke's appeal, said members of the resident group will meet with an attorney this week to discuss their options. The group could appeal to the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas, although that might be deemed too expensive, Engelman said.

"Obviously Sea Pines has unlimited money. We're doing this out of the goodness of our hearts," he said. "It becomes an issue now of how much we're going to need and how much people are willing to contribute" to a lawsuit.

Ehmke said the board ruled improperly and that she had residents' permission to represent them. She also said board member Michael Lawrence should have recused himself from the decision.

Lawrence spent a decade as president and CEO of Sea Pines Resort before serving as vice president of the resort from 2005 to 2007. According to the company's website, he is broker-in-charge at Sea Pines Real Estate's office at the current beach club. That club will be torn down to make way for the new clubhouse.

Lawrence recused himself, without explanation, on the second of three votes Monday -- a motion to throw out Sea Pines Resort's request to dismiss Ehmke's appeal, which failed on a 3-2 tally, with Fingerhut and North in favor.

However, Lawrence voted to remove the 26 residents from Ehmke's appeal and to dismiss her appeal.

Attempts Tuesday to reach Lawrence were unsuccessful.

Town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said the board members are subject to state ethics rules. Those rules ban public officials from making or influencing governmental decisions in which they have an economic interest.

He said it's up to a board member to decide if he or she has a conflict of interest.

The S.C. Ethics Commission website says anyone can file a complaint with its office if they suspects a conflict of interest by a public official.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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