Town must take on condo code violations

It appears that the dangerous practice of splitting condos into sub-units, then sealing them off from each other in a way that limits access to the electrical circuit-breaker panel is more common than many thought.

The Town of Hilton Head is now investigating whether two apartments at Oceanwalk Villas near South Forest Beach Drive have been divided permanently into separate units. And an owner at nearby Xanadu Villas has been found in violation of the town's electric code. Many more undetected violations likely exist.

Town code prohibits the sealing of doors between split units and requires that residents of every unit have access to an electrical panel. That access is important for both residents and firefighters in cases of emergencies. It's also a convenience for residents who may need to occasionally turn a breaker off.

So why is the splitting of units so common? Some condo owners have figured out that they can make more money by subdividing their two- and three-bedroom units into two or three apartments, then renting each out.

The town has allowed the practice, as long as owners don't build walls or caulk shut doors to permanently separate the units.

But some owners have thumbed their nose at the requirement. They have caulked doors, moved refrigerators and other furniture in front of them and taken other steps to provide the level of privacy that potential renters seek.

These owners are failing to realize that their entrepreneurial efforts are rendering their units unsafe. One instance of restricted access to a circuit-breaker panel can contribute to a fire to make all of the units virtually un-rentable.

Yes, renters like privacy. They like safety even more. And so do the many tourists and residents staying in nearby homes. And so do town officials who market the island as a safe, family-friendly vacation destination.

It's time for the town to engage in a public education campaign, alerting condo owners, their governing boards, real estate agents and the management companies that run the condo complexes that the town's code requires doors between units to be accessible. If doors are permanently sealed, then electrical panels must be installed in each unit. Town officials should also set up time frames during which repairs must be completed. And fines should be issued to those who fail to comply.

It would also be worthy to remind owners that town policies can change. Just because subdividing is currently allowed does not mean Town Council will continue to do so should this safety problem persist.

And the campaign should not be just hot air. Town officials must re-commit to speedy inspections when complaints are received, follow-up checks to make sure changes are made and fines issued when owners do not cooperate.

To date, the town has not done a good job of ensuring that owners who violate the code address the problems -- a situation that may help explain why the practice has become more common.

It's time for the town to make some changes. Not all rules are created equal. Those that impact public safety require faithful adherence. Town officials must see to it before tragedy strikes.