The Town of Hilton Head Island hopes a proposed county sales-tax referendum will generate about $7 million to pave and install drainage on 21 of the island’s roughest dirt roads.
If included in Beaufort County’s referendum question and approved by voters in November, the revenue from a 1 percent sales-tax increase could smooth roads reaching about 125 homes on the north end and mid-island, in primarily low- and medium-income communities.
Each road is also slated to receive sewer access in coming years, upgrades that officials agree should take place all at once to save time and money.
The town is among a long list of municipalities and agencies presenting their wish lists to the Beaufort County Capital Sales Tax Commission, which is responsible for finalizing the referendum question. The town’s other requests totaled more than $50 million, out of a sales tax expected to generate $120 million over four years.
While the $7 million commitment would bolster the town’s effort to improve some of its 90 dirt roads, the town’s sluggish pace in the past year weakens its claim that paving is a priority. It’s also done little to change the minds of native islanders who say the town has been deaf to their needs for decades.
For example, town officials have not contacted residents of the dirt roads since at least the summer, several community leaders said.
Murray Christopher, a native islander who lives on one of the 21 roads in need of sewer access — Christopher Drive — said he’s not surprised.
You can see where the property owners and the native islander community doesn’t get too worked up about discussion, because we’ve had discussion for 30 years.
Murray Christopher, native islander and resident of Christopher Drive
“There’s no change going to take place,” he said. “You can see where the property owners and the native islander community doesn’t get too worked up about discussion, because we’ve had discussion for 30 years. Action, that’s a different story.”
Scott Liggett, the town’s chief engineer and public projects and facilities director, said staff cannot move forward without guidance from the council as to how it should go about acquiring private dirt roads — a costly process complicated by native islanders’ tangled titles and reluctance to donate land passed down through generations.
Of the town’s request for $7 million in capital funding, about $2.5 million would be used to acquire rights-of-way alone.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Liggett said. “... I’m not sure how council intends to provide that direction or how they plan to discuss it.”
Reached this week, Mayor David Bennett and several town council members reiterated that paving roads is a priority of theirs, but council members weren’t sure where the effort stood. Bill Harkins referred questions to Ward 1 member Marc Grant, who represents the majority of residents living on dirt roads, and John McCann, who is chairman of the finance and administration subcommittee.
Grant could not be reached for comment, and McCann said he didn’t know town staff were waiting on council for answers,
“It’s not what we’re working on right now,” McCann said. “I don’t think they’ve stalled at all, there’s just a lot of things happening.”
Bennett added that he is awaiting a comprehensive funding plan, an “essential first step to the entire process.”
Lack of money has been hailed as the town’s biggest road block in both paving dirt roads and expanding sewer access to low- and medium-income communities. In December, the town dedicated $3.5 million to expand sewer access to all residents by 2020, but would still need more millions to connect poor residents to the new sewer lines.
The town has also turned to the federal Community Development Block Grant program, through which it hopes to pave five roads by 2020. Beginning last year, the town agreed to use the majority of its grant it qualifies for — about $200,000 a year — toward paving.
Both commitments were made after the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette newspapers reported in April 2015 that the town and county have paved just a third of its 136 dirt roads in the past 20 years.
On the north end, the town and county has paved only 17 percent of its dirt roads, located primarily in low-income neighborhoods. On the south end, where dirt roads were mainly in tourist and retirement areas, the town and county paved 69 percent.
And the seven dirt roads remaining on the south end will be paved through a storm-water capital improvement project by spring 2018, Liggett said.
The use of Community Development Block Grants is speeding up the same process on the north end.
Construction of the first road, Blazing Star Lane off Squire Pope Road, is expected to begin late this summer and last several months, town engineer Jeff Buckalew said. The town has about $161,000 of its 2015 grant remaining, after using some of the funds to create a 5-year plan, according to senior grants administrator Marcy Benson.
The process to pave the second road on the town’s priority list, Rhiner Drive off Gumtree Road, should begin in the fall, with a months-long environmental review process, Benson said.
Next in line are Wiley Road, also town-owned, and Murray Avenue and Cobia Court, two private roads in the process of acquisition. Four more roads are in the queue — Alfred Lane, Aiken Place, Alice Perry Drive, Pine Field Road, Mitchelville Lane and Bligen Lane.
Those roads reach about 135 homes. Collectively, the 90 private and town-owned dirt roads access more than 600 households.
Many of the dirt roads are pockmarked and covered in thick mud or dust depending on the weather. They cost the town thousands of dollars to maintain, inconvenience residents and potentially snarl emergency vehicles that need to travel down the roads in a hurry.
Christopher said he’s hopeful other residents will organize and continue to push the town for results.
Some, such as fifth-generation Hilton Head Islander Alex Brown Jr., have already stepped in to fill the shoes of Christopher, James Mitchell, and other community leaders who lobbied the town for sewer and roads more than 20 years ago.
But Christopher isn’t holding his breath.
“If it happens in my lifetime, it’ll be great. If not, I’ve lived on a dirt road for over 60 years,” Christopher said. “That’s been the lifestyle of the native islanders for generations. You make do with what you have until there’s a change.”
Veronica Miller, president of the Stoney/Squire Pope Property Owners Association, is more optimistic. She said she was heartened by the town’s commitment to expanding sewer access and plans to follow up with Benson, the town’s grants administrator.
“I guess I kind of sort of believe them that they want to do something,” she said. “... We just can’t wait for them to say they’re going to do this. You have to put it in front of them often, often, often.”
- Rough roads in paradise, April 24, 2015
- Unpaved and unsewered roads on Hilton Head Island, April 24, 2015
- Hilton Head commits $3.5 million to help bring sewer to all residents by 2020, December 15, 2015