In the shadow of development: 16 Hilton Head families displaced as land is sold

Jeannette Galvez-Martinez had 54 days to come up with $12,000.

She had been living at the same spot on Hilton Head Island for 12 years — a shady lot she leased on Little Garden Path near Spanish Wells.

On Feb. 5 she found out the owner of her lot was selling the nearly seven-acre property that’s home to 16 families. She had until March 31 to get her family, belongings and their 2,048-square-foot trailer out of Spanish Grove Trailer Park.

Although they rented the land, 14 of the families owned their trailer homes — an asset that costs thousands to move.

Their story highlights a side of development rarely talked about. As land is cleared to make way for new houses or businesses, people who lease that property must vacate — sometimes quickly, and often at great expense.

In the three months after receiving the letter, Galvez-Martinez lost 70 pounds due to stress. As she drove to work in the mornings, she called land owners, trying to arrange meetings in the evenings, after she finished her shift at Whole Foods. She lost sleep thinking about where she and her four family members would live if the property manager seized their home.

But how do you move a home on six weeks’ notice? Especially on a 69-square-mile island where trailers aren’t always welcome.

The answer, for Galvez-Martinez and others, was with help — a lot of it.

Through donations from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, the Lowcountry Strong team, the Beaufort County F3 group, and the Hilton Head Island Deep Well Project, the 14 families who owned their trailers were successfully relocated without losing their homes.

It cost $86,493 — a total Galvez-Martinez said she could never have imagined.

Jeannette Galvez-Martinez stands in front of her home in its new location on Gum Tree Road. It cost around $12,000 to move her trailer from Spanish Grove Trailer Park. Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

How the lease changed

Over a year before the sale, Galvez-Martinez’s property manager, HHSC LLC, changed the neighborhood’s lease from annual to month to month, according to Sandy Gillis, director of Deep Well.

All the neighbors signed the new lease.

“The scary thing was in the lease that they had all signed, it specifically said if you’re asked to move your trailer, then you must comply with the request or the landowner could seize the property and sell it at auction,” Gillis said.

Galvez-Martinez said that only much later did she understand the gravity of her situation: when she learned from Deep Well that the property owner could auction her home if she didn’t move in time.

“I bought the mobile home, and this was my whole life,” she said. “They’re going to destroy it?”

She became the neighborhood advocate. She translated the notice to Spanish for three families and wrote to HHSC LLC, asking for more time to find a place to go.

Her request was granted, and Galvez-Martinez continued to pay $525 per month in rent until the end of June while she assembled the money to pay impact fees, utility transfer fees and obtain a certificate of occupancy at her new home.

HHSC did not return calls Thursday for comment on Spanish Grove.

Mitch Snyder, an attorney with Hull Barrett, PC, who represents the firm, said in an email that “HHSC, LLC is working to bring an attractive project to Hilton Head. ... We worked with the SCDOT, [Town] of Hilton Head, and the private engineer hired by the tenants to obtain the required permits so that many of the tenants could move to lots they purchased and continue to live on Hilton Head Island.”

Jeannette Galvez-Martinez stands in front of her new home on Gum Tree Road. It cost around $12,000 to move her trailer from Spanish Grove Trailer Park. Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Where did everyone end up?

After Galvez-Martinez and her neighbors went to Deep Well for help, Gillis said a network of Lowcountry organizations stepped up.

The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, Deep Well and Lowcountry Strong provided $30,000 in grants, and Beaufort County F3 added $9,200.

That money was divided among the 14 families who owned their trailers. Each family received $2,800 to put toward moving costs, which Gillis said can be between $4,400 to $5,500 for a basic move.

After the pool ran out, Deep Well issued no-interest loans to families who needed more assistance.

Galvez-Martinez was one of those recipients. It cost $6,500 to move her home and another $2,656 in impact fees from the Town of Hilton Head Island.

She estimates it cost $12,000 in total to move.

Of the 14 neighbors, 10 stayed on Hilton Head Island. Several have children in public schools there.

One family moved to Bluffton; three others moved to Jasper County, Gillis said.

Galvez-Martinez’s home was split in half before it was moved on June 29. She put as many belongings as she could fit into a storage unit and stayed with her daughter in Hardeeville while crews re-assembled her house on Gum Tree Road.

She now lives there with her brother, 24-year-old son and his girlfriend. The home faces southwest, and the family leaves the door open while they’re home in the afternoon to give dozens of houseplants sun inside.

“This nightmare is over,” she said on Thursday.

But the expense and frustrations she endured will likely be experienced by others in the future.

Gillis, who said she’s relieved that the neighbors on Little Garden Path were able to get help, added that she’s concerned this will happen again, particularly on Hilton Head, where land values are high.

She said she’s specifically concerned about trailers on waterfront land.

“Somebody,” she said, “is going to come along” and be able to pay more for the land than the people who live there.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.