Heated discussions about annexing neighboring islands to Hilton Head have been put on hold — for now.
Town officials announced Friday evening that annexation petitions circulating on Jenkins and Hog islands near the base of the Hilton Head bridges had been scrapped — effectively ensuring the question of whether to become part of the town won’t be on the ballot in November 2019.
After meeting with town administrators Friday, “we agreed to suspend the current effort and restart fresh early next year,” Windmill Harbour Property Owners Association President Don Baldwin said in an email to residents of the 348-home gated community.
Aug. 15 is the deadline to get any question on the ballot in Beaufort County. The residents of Jenkins and Hog islands would have needed 25 percent of registered voters in the area to sign a petition by that date to get a vote on the annexation.
The annexation process, which has been in the works for several years, frustrated some residents because many didn’t learn of the efforts until the Island Packet wrote about it May 13.
Petitions began to circulate in late spring, although Windmill Harbour residents said at the time they had no information about what they were requesting or what changes they’d see as members of the town.
“They seem to be saying ‘vote yourselves in and then we will take a look at what your zoning would be and what your water setbacks would be,’” resident Arthur Weitzenfeld said in May. “Why can’t they tell us what would happen? (The town) won’t put it in writing.”
“We have about 40 members, and I cannot identify anyone who had mentioned annexation, had heard about a meeting, or had been to a meeting,” Janet Miller said of Mariner’s Cove, a nearby community of about 40 homes.
Assistant Town Manager Josh Gruber hosted one meeting about annexation, where he discussed the pros and cons with residents, most of them from Windmill Harbour.
In those meetings, Gruber said annexation would change which fire and EMS agency responds to the islands. Instead of Bluffton units coming from the mainland, Hilton Head units would address any calls to Jenkins and Hog islands.
The change wouldn’t necessarily have increased costs for current Hilton Head residents or those in the annexed areas, Gruber said, since the nearest fire station is within 5 miles of Jenkins Island and already serves as the neighborhood’s backup responding agency.
Residents were worried about the potential for more stringent building codes in the town that could limit rebuilding on waterfront property, although town officials said a grandfather clause may be available to relax buffer zones.
The annexation process isn’t going away, according to Windmill Harbour’s Baldwin.
In his email to residents, Baldwin said county and town leaders will create “a more detailed comparison document of services and benefits.”
Early next year, Baldwin said new surveys and information will be distributed in Windmill Harbour to determine the interest in annexation of only that community.
“If the survey returns a high interest in annexation, we will work with and request that the town prepare the appropriate 25 percent annexation petition for WINDMILL HARBOUR ONLY,” he wrote.
Baldwin also said the town will hold public meetings on annexation if there is interest.
In a news release Friday, town officials said the annexation issue will be sent to the intergovernmental committee of town council members for discussion and guidance.
Gruber said the town may be more involved the next time around.
“This past time around we were rather passive about it,” he said. “If it’s something council wants to do, we would step up and probably be more proactive in reaching out to the community, offer to hold more and more frequent public information sessions.”