Debate, lawsuits continue over south end 'Heron Hotel'

This image of the Heron Street properties shows the space between the houses without a deck. SUBMITTED

Residential neighborhoods on Hilton Head Island are friendly confines where the casual Lowcountry lifestyle flourishes. You'll observe dog-walking chats in the street, summer cook-outs and barbeques and kids playing in yards.

Local life here is as all-American as apple pie and "Leave It To Beaver."

There are no walls that divide neighbors in quiet and convenient North Forest Beach, one of the island's oldest communities. But there was a wooden deck connecting two new homes on two parcels at 3 and 5 Heron Street after two years of construction that was completed early last year.

Life in the neighborhood changed.

The Forest Beach Homeowners Association (HOA), the town of Hilton Head, the Beaufort County court system and a contingent of vocal North Forest Beach residents crashed the party that homeowner Shane Gould thought would be his alone to celebrate.

After wrangling for more than six months since last spring, the deck was deconstructed in December. However, lawsuits have not been dismissed, and none of the three parties - the homeowner, the town and the HOA - have signed the final agreement that finally would put all issues to rest (as of press time).

"The main issue started out as taking two family residences and developing them in such a way to make it a compound, so it was multi-family in a single-family platted family neighborhood," said John Snodgrass, HOA vice president. "The deck definitely violated covenants."

Gould contends the homes are two individual dwellings and that the HOA knew he was building a deck to connect the two.

"They called it one, which is not true; they're two separate properties and two separate dwellings," Gould said. "Everybody that rents that place rents both places, and they want a community area (deck) to walk back and forth. That's the whole concept."

HOA protocol requires that a homeowner and the builder notify it when construction is completed so association officials can inspect the property to ensure that compliance with all covenants are met.

Some neighbors already had assembled their opposition to the two 3,100-square-foot, five-bedroom, five-and-a-half bathroom residences before the HOA had ever stepped foot on the property.

Calling the properties "Hotel Heron," they contended the massive dwellings completely changed the complexion of their quaint little neighborhood, would lead to rowdiness by renters and turn the area into a full-swing resort. They even voiced their opposition in front of the Hilton Head Town Council.

"For years, this was being built, even the deck that took months and months," said Gould, a native islander, former snowboarder, and owner of Fuel Clothing Co. "They (the HOA) could have easily walked over and said, 'That's an issue', but it wasn't an issue with them.

"It was an issue because people in North Forest Beach got together, created this little hush fund and felt this was bad publicity for (them)," he said.

Upon completion, the HOA inspected the property, sent Gould and his lawyer a letter that effectively directed him to "remove the deck or request a variance." The deck was not included in the original construction plans submitted before the HOA's Architectural Review Board.

Gould said it wasn't required because the deck's 16-inch height was lower than the maximum 24 inches allowed.

Snodgrass said the covenants don't address height at all. Covenants state that owners can't build anything within 5 feet of the property line on any residential properties.

Gould chose the variance route.

Tina Lewis, a town land management ordinance official, granted a waiver on the deck, determining that the two properties functioned as one, with no violation of setback or buffer requirements.

"The waiver was issued because... I felt the deck made them function together as one development," she said. "I recognized, obviously, that they were two separate parcels, but if they were on one parcel, they wouldn't have needed the waiver."

The HOA appealed her decision to the town's Board of Zoning Appeals, and the waiver was overturned. Board Chairman David Fingerhut declined comment.

"Our contention before the town officials was that they were misinterpreting their own code and had applied the waiver improperly," Snodgrass said.

The HOA and Gould's lawyers sued each other in county court, which is where their lawsuits still sit. Gould recently presented a handful of statements and questions to the HOA about the final agreement that they and the town still have to sign.

The hang-up now might be a fire pit in the common area and landscaping.

The HOA board hasn't responded yet, Snodgrass said.

The only certainty is that this situation will not repeat itself. In December, town council approved amendments drafted by the Land Management Ordinance Committee to ensure that a waiver on buffer and setback requirements is not applied again in single-family residential areas, Lewis said.

As Yogi Berra famously once declared, "It ain't over till it's over."

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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