An Historical Perspective

Creating a better future begins by understanding what preceded us and examining our present challenges.

In the September 2021 issue of The Seabrooker, Councilwomen Jeri Finke’s “From Town Hall” article provides an informative perspective on the development and growth of Seabrook Island in light of issues we confront today. If you missed reading it in The Seabrooker, we have reprinted it here.

An Historical Perspective on Seabrook Island by Jeri Finke

It is always difficult for me to come up with a Council topic when it’s my turn to write for “From Town Hall.” While I’m not writing about recent Council activity this time around, I believe I’m hitting on a topic that has generated discussions out there in the Town.

And I’ll justify sharing the following information as coming “From Town Hall” because the source includes nine volumes of scrapbooks full of news clippings, newsletters, legal communications, etc. that I found at Town Hall and also a book written by former Mayor Ron Ciancio about the history of the island and the Club.

I stumbled on so much information and enlightening stories that for once I wish I had room to write and write.

So reading through all this material alongside some of the community discussions that took place this summer, it made me think of how we all stand in front of a mirror and are overly critical of what we see. You know how it goes … I’ve got my hair looking good but I wish for my mom’s long legs … or thanks be for the height I inherited but I’ve got to do more crunches or lay off the wine and beer!

It seems that many Seabrookers have been standing in front of a mirror and looking at our community with a very critical eye (perhaps forgetting that we’ve experienced two years of unprecedented activity because of the pandemic). They love the beauty of the island and all the amenities it offers, but they perceive that too many people are sharing it all with them, be it through new construction or the guests who visit.

The image in our mirrors reflects the genes we inherited as well as life choices we’ve made along the way. With that in mind, now that our peak summer season is winding down, can the community step back a bit from the mirror and take a more realistic look? What did we inherit from the initial development of Seabrook Island and the following choices made along the way, be it by the developers, the POA, the Club, and the Town? Is it fair to be outraged that we’re not just a sleepy little town for all 12 months of the year? Can we just dismiss and ignore the history that started and promoted Seabrook Island as a resort destination?

I am throwing out odds and ends of information here as a bit of history and food for thought. This by no means suggests that there are not changes that could and/or should be made by our island’s governing entities to address concerns.

Seabrook Island (fifty years ago!) was not planned as a residential community with a private club. Resort is in the foundation of the development. From the Town’s Development Standards Ordinance, Section 6, Background: The resort community of Seabrook Island is the first Planned Development District established in Charleston County. The “Planned Unit Development (PUD)” was initially approved by the Charleston County Council in 1971 …

Back then, the lead partner in the Seabrook Development Corporation (SDC) would tell any source that would print it that “the prestigious Seabrook Island will rival the resorts of Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach.” That marketing strategy would continue for several years; once enough residential lots were sold and homes built, marketing efforts started referencing the residential resort community of Seabrook Island.

In 1972 when SDC sold its interest to the partnership called the Seabrook Island Company (SIC), our little barrier island got lucky. One of the general partners, Harry R. Gonzalez, fell in love with the beauty of the island. He pledged that “every tree that can be saved will be saved” and that the resort and eventual residential development will not be “at the expense of destroying the ecology of the island.”

It was also in 1972 that the Articles of Incorporation for SIPOA were filed. While developers controlled a majority of the votes for several years, the property owners who served on the board played an early key role in protecting the island from any “clear and build” development.

For example, when SIC went to Charleston County for a controversial variance to save more than 30 trees that would otherwise need to be cut down for road construction to provide the required drainage maintenance easement, SIPOA supported SIC and agreed to assume the maintenance of the roads behind the gate. Since the County was then off the hook for maintenance, the variance was granted and the trees saved – think about the tree canopy along Seabrook Island Road.

The Town of Seabrook Island was not incorporated until 1987; there were 16 years of development activity prior during which there were many disagreements between property owners/residents the developers. While it is generally the accepted history that resident property owners voted overwhelming to incorporate to avoid annexation by the City of Charleston, it is also very true that they wanted to control the character of the island. Incorporation created the Town’s ability to enact its own zoning and design standards, and thus put a stop to the then-developer’s already County-approved plan to build high-rise structures along Seabrook Island Road. Incorporation also shut down commercial development behind the gate.

By the way, by this point in time, the SIC had been sold and resold with the lead developer being Robert Russell. When he took title to the resort’s assets, he named it the Seabrook Island Ocean Club. He was the lead partner when the resort filed for bankruptcy protection in 1989 and Bank South of Atlanta eventually took the property in foreclosure. He went to court to try to stop the incorporation of the Town.

So adding it up, luck, coincidence, and foresight of some very smart people kept Seabrook from becoming another Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach. As we can see every day, there’s no wide boardwalk with taffy shops and a Ferris wheel or high-rise hotels and fast-food chain restaurants. Our golf and tennis resort experience is more about green space, wildlife, and a pristine beach.

When the initial PDD was approved by the County, and as the development was sold and resold, the plan was for single family homesites in the range of 1200-1600 with 1400-1600 multi-family residences. The PDD has been amended twice and updated once, but those numbers have changed little. In the Town’s 2019 comprehensive plan (required by law and on the Town’s website), the SI PDD for behind the gate is 1,328 single-family homes and 1,690 multi-family residences (1,537 and 1,690 when adding in the PDDs for Jenkins Point and others.)

I include those numbers for context against questions of why SIPOA is approving so many home designs and the Town is issuing zoning permits for new construction. Whether you bought on Seabrook Island 5 years or 35 years ago, essentially the same number of lots have always been part of the plan. There’s no surprise in the numbers, but it does mean that there will be more people on the island, whether owners or resort guests occupy those new homes.

The first beach club, the SI Beach and Cabana Club (1973/74), was marketed for private membership but not just to island property owners. The flurry of villa construction at the time – High Hammock being the first – soon rendered private a misnomer. Villas were sold and contracts offered to buyers for the developer/beach club to rent the property for them to resort guests and for the small conventions that would be part of the mix well into the 1990s, even after property owners purchased the resort amenities out of foreclosure to establish the Club at Seabrook Island. 

There have been many intervals during the island’s history when resort guests, renters, outsiders, tourists, or whatever the favorite current term is for our visitors, comprised a much larger percentage of the “people on island” week to week than we experience now. Again, just a bit of history for context because property owners/residents 20/30/40 years ago voiced the same familiar complaints about “too many renters.”

For the fifty years that rentals have been part of the economics and culture of Seabrook Island, only basic SIPOA rules, because of certain jurisdictional restrictions, offered any oversight. With no ordinance on the books to deal with a possible problem rental property, the Town also had no recourse when complaints were made.

That changed just this year when the Town’s new Short-Term Rental (STR) ordinance took effect (Ordinance 2020-14). Rental properties now must have a permit from the Town and one requirement is to advertise and adhere to occupancy limits. Other jurisdictions that imposed occupancy restrictions have found they serve as an effective passive control and enforcement. The March 31 deadline for having rental permits in hand this first year means that we are only 4-5 months into the impact of requiring occupancy limits and there’s not yet sufficient data with which to draw conclusions.

There have been only about 500 rental permits issued as this goes to print – covering less than one-quarter of all properties. But NOT all of those rental properties are ACTIVE all the time. The ordinance requires a property to have a permit if rented less than 30 consecutive days (even if just for one night) at “any time during the calendar year.” And despite rumors to the contrary, there have been enforcement actions.

Since the Town’s incorporation, rental properties have generated revenue that comes back to the Town through the state (2%) and county (2%) accommodations taxes renters pay. It is of note that a portion of those funds by law must be used to advertise the island and to promote tourism. Our visitors fund the majority of the budget for beach patrol and also the fireworks on the Fourth.

The Town was not party to the 2004 Island One agreement between SIPOA and the Club that produced Section 40 of SIPOA’s covenants, which requires new property purchasers, unless grandfathered, to become members of the Club. This is of note because most rental properties have Club memberships; their owners pay monthly Club dues; their renters then pay the higher guest rates for using Club amenities. There is also a charge for using SIPOA amenities for properties that do not have a Club membership. And, of course, all properties are assessed by SIPOA.

Could/should any of these fees and charges be higher – this discussion here is not taking sides. I’m only including information for an honest look into the mirror to acknowledge that folks sharing our island do not get a free ride.

Through every iteration of this community – through the initial purchase and investments, the buying and selling of the development, failed equity conversions, the incorporation of the Town, and the bankruptcy of the development and the purchase of the resort amenities by property owners – Seabrook Island became recognized as a residential resort community, albeit behind a private security gate, and the resort amenities, and the guests they attract, have always been part of the equation.

So how do we not look in the mirror and accept that Seabrook Island has always been private but open, resort but residential, welcoming but often frustrated with guests, happy for the summer business but thrilled to have the island back when fall comes? It’s all part of Seabrook Island’s DNA.

When considering all the different, competing constituencies who are invested in Seabrook Island, it might be wise not to be too critical when looking in the mirror. Perhaps there’s really nothing so horribly wrong that can’t be tweaked without alienating any of those constituencies who are also our friends and neighbors. 

Tidelines Editors