Politics & Government

Hilton Head to some builders: Waive rights to a fire hydrant, or don’t build

Builders in some parts of Hilton Head Island will face an ultimatum if they’re trying to build on property farther away from a fire hydrant than 500 feet: Don’t build. If they do, they can’t hold the Town of Hilton Head Island responsible if the house burns down later.

As part of the permitting process, town officials will require property owners to sign a waiver acknowledging the distance to a fire hydrant. Earlier this summer, a town leader on the Gullah- Geechee cultural preservation task force compared the document to signing away a resident’s rights.

But on Monday, the task force generally accepted the revised waiver. The waiver, which does not have to go before the Hilton Head Town Council for a vote, is effective immediately.

The new waiver is a condition of obtaining a building permit for land outside of the preferred radius of 500 feet from a fire hydrant. It will affect mainly land in non-gated communities on the island’s north end.

It does not determine whether fire rescue will respond to a fire at the home, assistant town manager Josh Gruber said.

“By signing it, you’re not getting any less in terms of fire rescue services,” he said. The waiver protects the town from civil lawsuits and applies only to new construction, Gruber said.

A fire ravages a mobile home in Seabrook on September 8, 2017. The fire killed three residents, including 10-year-old Ja’kyla Reid and 4-year-old Jaylyn Sanders-Nelson. Burton Fire District

The lack of availability of fire hydrants was the subject of an investigation by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette newspapers in 2018 after a fatal fire killed two children in Seabrook. Their home was miles from the nearest hydrant, according to the report.

It’s not clear how many properties on Hilton Head are too far from hydrants, Gruber said.

Will the neighborhoods ever get hydrants?

The waiver makes a new case for who is responsible for utilities that homeowners cannot provide for themselves.

When Hilton Head was incorporated as a “limited services government” in 1983, it provided no services and owned very few roads. Planned unit development builders were responsible for installing fire hydrants to serve the gated communities.

But an individual landowner cannot always afford to install a hydrant. Those can cost between $5,000 and $8,000 each if a water main is readily accessible, Hilton Head Fire Chief Brad Tadlock said. If a water main isn’t accessible, the cost doubles — to between $10,000 and $15,000.

According to the waiver, the applicant must show the town that installing a hydrant would create a “severe economic hardship.”

Native islanders looking to build on their property say hydrants should be available whether there are 10 or 100 people living nearby. They say restrictive zoning and lack of access to utilities such as hydrants and sewer slows development of the north end.

In the past two years, public and private agencies have joined forces to install hydrants to benefit the most densely populated areas. In 2018, the agencies installed nine fire hydrants, according to Pete Nardi, general manager of the Hilton Head Public Service District.

Tadlock said in June that the fire department can install hydrants so that most homes on Hilton Head are less than 1,000 feet from a hydrant — double the preferred radius — in “probably another year.”

The waiver the committee approved Monday will be updated so that if a fire hydrant is installed nearby, the liability waiver with the town is automatically terminated.

“At the beginning,” task force chairman Lavon Stevens said, forcing people to sign a waiver “was unsettling.”

Later, he added: “I’m encouraged that one day this document will not be as needed.”

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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.