Why do I need that permit? What form do I need to fill out? Why do I need a plan if I just want to put another home on my property?
If you’re a homeowner trying to get answers from local government, those questions can kill a project before it even gets off the ground. It has been even more of a barrier for the landowners of the town of Hilton Head Island’s historic neighborhoods through the years, an ongoing issue that has stunted the preservation of those neighborhoods.
The town is trying to proactively address the problem with the creation of the Historic Neighborhoods Permitting and Design Studio. The idea is to assist property and business owners with the litany of questions and tasks involved in developing property.
“Our goal is to be a one-stop resource center to help property and business owners navigate the Town’s land use and development standards, prepare development applications and resolve some barriers with property use such as property buffers, setbacks, easements and rights-of-way,” said Sheryse DuBose, Ph.D., Historic Neighborhoods Preservation administrator for the town. “We’ve been handling these issues informally with a number of residents for the past couple years, but we wanted to formalize this to make it clear folks have a one-stop shop here to get help on their projects.”
It’s an approach that has not always been present, as many homeowners in the town’s 14 historic districts have felt ignored and frustrated when attempting to engage with the town in the past.
“Conceptually, this is an idea that is long overdue,” said Ward 1 town council member Alex Brown, a native islander whose family history on Hilton Head stretches back seven generations. “The idea of natives who own property being able to fully use or benefit from the property – that’s huge, but we haven’t always felt that was part of the plan here.”
DuBose said the idea was to pull together resources within the town from the development and planning departments to reduce the barriers to property development.
“I grew up here; my career has been focused on preserving and honoring Gullah communities. So to be in this role with the town, it means the world,” DuBose said. “We want to preserve the historic neighborhoods where these families can not just celebrate their history but continue to thrive here for generations to come.”
Through the design studio, residents and property and business owners can receive assistance with every step of the development process, including development permits, conceptual site design, addressing, property access, business licenses and connection to additional resources for heirs’ property, property taxes and business development.
Heirs’ property is an especially tricky topic and one that DuBose admits is more challenging.
“We may not be able to fully address or solve the issues, but it’s not going to be a dead end either,” she said. “Clearing the title is the end goal, and we can refer them to resources like the Genealogy Clinic and the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation to help clear those hurdles.”
DuBose said the bulk of her inquiries thus far have had to do with adding mobile homes to a property and getting proper permits. She said she is presently dealing with 20 different families with a variety of issues just since the design studio was formalized.
Herbert Ford is one of those residents and said his experience with the design studio staff has been a positive experience thus far.
“When I first relocated back to the island in 2009 and was building a house, it was so frustrating dealing with the town. It was just banging my head against a brick wall. It didn’t feel like they cared enough to help,” Ford said. “I’m not sure if it’s because of new administration, but it has been a night and day experience for me this time.”
Ford is attempting to add a pair of structures to his property.
“My initial plan was to try to put a couple of duplexes there and I thought I had acreage to do it. Well, with land management ordinances restrictions with setbacks, I couldn’t do it. In the past, that would have been the rubber stamp and the end of the discussion,” he said. “This time, they’re working with me to make it work. They’re helping me to design the structures to work within the rules and I’m getting sage advice on how to move forward. I will still be able to build two small homes for rental purposes and make sure it’s done the right way.”
Brown said that while he hasn’t yet had to work with the design studio, he has heard stories similar to Ford that signal a change in the respect being given to residents of the historic neighborhoods.
“We haven’t handled it the right way in the past, that’s clear. I give the town a lot of credit for addressing that, for owning the past and listening to residents on what they need for the future,” Brown said. “We are a diverse community here and that’s what makes this place so special to all of us. So to see the town taking steps like this to make engaging with government a little less intimidating, it’s progress that’s essential at this moment in our history.”
DuBose said the design studio was born out of a combination of resident input, staff suggestions and recommendations from consultants on how to understand development standards while respecting the history of the neighborhoods.
“The folks of these neighborhoods, there is a history of communal family living that is so important to the culture,” DuBose said. “There are many different ways to achieve the goals that folks come to us with. It’s all about opening channels of communication, rather than just throwing a bunch of forms at them and saying, ‘Good luck.’
“We can make those mobile home permits happen – maybe you end up subdividing the property or designing it properly with the buffers and setbacks for a family compound. The concepts of density and setbacks and ordinances, we can make all that jargon feel less daunting. The end goal is to make this work for the residents.”
It’s an attitude that Ford is excited to see from his town government. He is still working through the process with the town, with more meetings to come, but is impressed by what he has seen thus far.
“You can bet I’m going to spread the word here. I’m getting very sage advice. I feel like I’m being heard and respected, and that my end goal is in sight,” Ford said. “Other folks need to hear that. No matter their experiences in the past, they need to know there is a new way of doing things now. This is progress and while I wasn’t happy with how I was dealt with in the past, that’s the past. It’s great to feel like we’re all working toward solutions here.”
DuBose said this is just one step in what she hopes is a continuous building of relationships with the many residents of the town’s historic neighborhoods.
“There is plenty of work left to do here, we all know that. These residents, the Gullah culture, it’s so important to know who we were, who we are today,” DuBose said. “We just want the message getting out there that we’re all in this together.”
To access services of the Historic Neighborhoods Permitting and Design Studio, property and business owners can contact DuBose at 843-341-4683 or email SheryseD@hiltonheadislandsc.gov.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.