Crime & Public Safety

Are Hilton Head’s gated communities safer? Yes, but theft still an issue

Surveillance technology at Palmetto Dunes

Chief of Security Jim Griner describes some of the advanced technology the department uses to keep track of what is going on in the development.
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Chief of Security Jim Griner describes some of the advanced technology the department uses to keep track of what is going on in the development.

Manned gates, round-the-clock teams of officers and other security measures in Hilton Head Island’s 10 gated communities appear to be paying off.

While 70 percent of Hilton Head’s land mass is in gated communities, less than 12 percent of the island’s reported crimes happened there in 2014. That’s according to an analysis by The Island Packet of every crime report filed by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office that year.

Particularly striking is the few number of reports of violent crimes. Of Hilton Head’s 196 armed robberies, burglaries and other offenses deemed violent by the S.C. criminal code, only 35 occurred behind gates.

But the communities are not crime-free, posting 522 crime reports, most of them property crimes.

The numbers are an important barometer for Hilton Head given its abundance of gated communities and their potential effect on real estate activity, property values and the neighborhoods’ attractiveness to future generations of newcomers.

The analysis’ findings keep with long-standing trends on the island, said Capt. Bob Bromage of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. Hilton Head is generally a safe, low-crime community. And that’s particularly true behind the gates.

“You typically see a lot less street crimes in gated communities,” he said.

Database: Browse every 2014 crime in Hilton Head’s gated communities

Theft: Most common problem behind gates

Theft is consistently the biggest problem for the island’s gated communities, with 172 theft offenses reported in 2014.

Neighborhood security teams say most thefts are crimes of opportunity: a neighborhood teenager grabs a bike from an open garage, a worker with access to a home nabs a bottle of prescription medicine or items are taken from an unlocked car.

“We live in a community that appears to be relatively safe, and sometimes I think folks feel too comfortable,” said Peter Kristian, general manager of Hilton Head Plantation. “People will forget to lock the doors to their homes, and occasionally someone takes advantage.”

Thefts are rarely the result of home break-ins or people who sneak into the community, said Jim Griner, chief of security at Palmetto Dunes.

“We see very little cases of forced entry,” Griner said. “It’s much more common that someone who somehow has access to the community and the property is responsible.”

Beyond theft, the most common crimes in the 10 gated communities were:

▪ Suspicious activity and trespassing offenses, with 83 reports.

▪ Reports of fraud and identity theft, with 67 reports.

▪ Domestic violence and domestic disputes, with 24 reports.

How tourists affect the numbers

Some have speculated that the number of reports could be higher in the three gated communities that include large hotels and significant numbers of vacation rentals — Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes and Shipyard Plantation.

But that is not the case.

In those neighborhoods, just 17 percent of crime reports came from the hotels, according to the analysis. Only Palmetto Dunes had significantly more crime reports than the other gated neighborhoods. According to the analysis, 53 of its 132 reports came from two of the island’s largest hotels and one large condominium complex behind its gates.

Shipyard Plantation and Sea Pines, however, were among the gated communities with the lowest rate of crimes reported per 100 housing units.

“Security can be a little more challenging when you have tourists coming in and out of the community,” said Sally Warren, general manager of Shipyard. “But even people who are here for the resort need a pass. We let them know that we are keeping track of what they do while they are in our neighborhood.”

Here are the key findings for each of Hilton Head’s 10 gated communities:

Hilton Head Plantation The community posted 2.7 crime reports for every 100 housing units — the fifth highest rate among the island’s 10 gated communities. The most common offenses fit with the wider trends among gated communities on the island with theft, fraud and reports of disturbances making up 63 percent of its 113 reports. The most serious reports included one auto theft and three burglaries.

Indigo Run The 862-home community had a rate of about 4.3 crime reports for every 100 housing units. While there were only 37 crimes reported, there were serious offenses, including two reports of aggravated criminal domestic violence and one armed burglary.

Long Cove Club The 460-home community had 12 crime reports within its gates, or about 2.6 reports for every 100 housing units. There was only one report of a crime considered violent by the South Carolina criminal code: a burglary reported at McKays Point Road.

Palmetto Dunes The community posted the second highest rate among the island’s gated communities — 6.1 crimes reported for every 100 residences, excluding the adjacent Leamington neighborhood. The rate was driven up because Palmetto Dunes includes two of the island’s largest resorts and multi-family complexes. The Queen’s Grant Villas, Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort and Hilton Head Marriott Resort collectively accounted for 53 of the neighborhood’s 132 reports. There was just one report of a serious crime — a rarity for Palmetto Dunes and the island’s other gated communities. Initially reported as a death investigation, Nick Evangelista, 53, was later charged with murder in October 2014 after he was accused of suffocating his girlfriend with bubble wrap in a St. Andrews Commons condominium behind Palmetto Dunes’ front gates.

Palmetto Hall The 426-home community posted the highest rate among the gated communities with 9.4 reports written for every 100 housing units. Still, it posted only 40 crime reports, 13 of which were written at the Palmetto Hall Plantation Club. Most of those were written in a short period from August to October and included four burglaries, one auto theft and four thefts of property valued at more than $2,000.

Port Royal Plantation There were just four crimes reported for every 100 homes in Port Royal. Theft was the biggest issue for the 862-home community, making up 13 of its 39 reports. One burglary on Wimbeldon Court marked the only reported offense considered violent.

Sea Pines While it is the largest gated community on the island with about 5,900 housing units and is open to tourists, the community posted one of the lowest rates among the island’s gated communities — 1.8 offenses reported for every 100 residences. Of its 100 crime reports, a higher percentage were for driving under the influence, assault and drug offenses compared with the other gated neighborhoods.

Shipyard Plantation Shipyard has significant tourist traffic because of the Sonesta Resort and the large number of vacation rentals behind its gates. Yet the community’s number of crime reports per 100 residences was the second lowest among gated communities on the island, with 27 reports in 2014. Sonesta accounted for seven of those reports, all of them minor offenses.

Wexford Plantation Wexford Plantation had both the fewest number of crimes reported and the lowest rate among any of the gated communities. There were four crimes reported in the 384-home community in 2014, or a little more than one for every 100 residences. There were reports of two fraud cases, a vandalism complaint and one theft of property valued at over $2,000.

Windmill Harbour The 345-home neighborhood posted nine crime reports, or about 2.6 crime reports for every 100 residences. The most serious reported offense involved the breaking and entering of a boat and theft of property of more than $2,000 at the South Carolina Yacht Club in October 2014.

Is gated really safer?

Outside of the gates, more crime reports were written. They were concentrated in two spots: the Forest Beach area, which includes Coligny, the town’s top tourist destination, and the area surrounding Mathews Drive, the site of several large apartment complexes including Hilton Head Gardens, The Oaks, Woodlake Villas and Sandlewood Terrace.

It’s unclear whether the presence of gates and other security measures explains the discrepancy in the number of reports.

There are likely other contributing factors. For example, the Mathews Drive area is densely populated, increasing the odds for crime. And Coligny attracts thousands of tourists who visit bars, restaurants and retailers, Bromage said.

“Where there is more opportunity for criminals, there will usually be more crime,” he said.

Gated communities may also be home to those who are less likely to be victims of crime, according to Nicolas Branic, a criminology researcher with the University of California Irvine, who has studied crime in gated communities.

Forest Beach, Mathews Drive top spots for Hilton Head crime reports

For instance, Branic found that nationally, residents living in a gated community near other wealthier gated communities had especially low likelihoods of victimization nationwide. And residents living in an affluent gated community encompassed by low-income, socially disorganized housing had higher victimization rates by comparison.

“The jury is still out in a lot of ways on how big of an effect the gate makes,” Branic said. “Better safety is definitely a sort of presumption that people make. It’s just not totally clear if that is founded.”

The gated neighborhoods also have invested heavily in other security measures that may contribute to low crime rates. All 10 of Hilton Head’s gated communities have security teams and pay employees to man the gates at least part of the day. Camera systems monitor who comes and goes, and body cameras are becoming increasingly popular for security officers.

“People here are very interested in making sure they’re protected,” said Susan Fishel, general manager of the Wexford Plantation Homeowners Association. “That’s one of the reasons they buy in a gated community in the first place. You want a sense of privacy. You don’t want to question if you’re safe.”

This story has been updated to exclude crimes reported in the adjacent Leamington community from the Palmetto Dunes totals.

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh

What’s going on in your neighborhood?

Our online database has a breakdown of every crime reported in the island’s 10 gated communities in 2014, including the type of crime, the date it occurred and the street on which it happened. Check it out at http://bit.ly/GatedCrime.

What we found

  • Only 35 reported crimes that could be deemed violent happened behind the gates in 2014. One out of every three crime reports was a theft.
  • The gated community with the highest crime-report rate was Palmetto Hall, though the number of offenses for the entire year (40) was still relatively low.
  • The largest number of reported crime reports (132) was in Palmetto Dunes, a large community that includes two of the island’s largest resorts and a multi-family complex.
  • Wexford had both the fewest crimes reported and the lowest crime report rate.
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