A number of island residents attended the March 24 meeting of the town’s Public Planning Committee at Town Hall. SCREENSHOT

An ordinance providing the strictest regulation of short term rental properties in Hilton Head Island’s history will be considered for passage at the April 19 Town Council meeting.

The town’s four-member Public Planning Committee voted 3-1 at its March 24 meeting to move the long-discussed ordinance forward for discussion and approval by the full Town Council.

“In my six years on Council, I’ve not experienced the level of diligence and exhaustive research that staff has done leading up to today,” said committee chairman and Ward 3 representative David Ames. “We are probably not going to satisfy 100% of the people here. There are diametrically opposed interests here. The challenge for our council is to balance the community good against the interest of individuals and the business economy.”

The plan approved by the committee would, among other things, create a $250 yearly permit fee, a process to suspend or revoke permits, and a one-hour window in which short term rental owners or agents must respond to a complaint registered with the town.

Fellow committee members voiced their concerns about the drafted plan.

“This is an awful lot of work due to a few bad apples and that’s most unfortunate,” said committee member and Ward 6 representative Glenn Stanford. “Most of our rental property owners and visitors are responsible owners and visitors. The actions of a few have caused these regulations.”

Ward 1 representative Alex Brown said the proposed fee potentially needed to not just cover the costs of enforcement, but to be higher for those taking in more revenues and to be used to help address workforce and affordable housing on the island.

“The fee can’t simply be a deterrent for bad apples,” Brown said. “The fee shouldn’t just cover our costs, but it should be part of solution to solving this imbalance around the island. And those making more should be paying more into the system through this fee.”

Many residents in attendance agreed that fees should be proportional to the amount of revenue an owner took in, and perhaps levied when owners paid their property tax bill each year.

Tammy Becker was the lone “no” vote on moving the ordinance forward to Council, saying she feels there are too many issues still to address with the plan.

The regulations as written, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, include:

• Short-term rentals would need to apply for and receive a special annual permit, with an application fee proposed to be $250 each. The permits would be non-transferable and council would re-evaluate the fee structure each year during its budget process.

• The town would contract with a third-party provider to man a hotline and offer a web portal where complaints would be lodged.

• Short-term rental owners or responsible agents must be responsible to respond to complaints and take action within one hour after being notified of the complaint. To comply with the permit rules, owners must agree to basic upkeep standards such as being responsible for maintaining smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, maintaining fire escape routes and at least one extinguisher, displaying information about the town’s noise rules, including quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and designating guest parking spaces and a trash storage area so cans are not visible from the street.

• Enforcement would include a fine up to $500 or 30 days in jail for violations (or both), and a suspension or possible revoking of a short-term rental permit if a property was deemed a nuisance, an owner is found to have committed more than two violations in the same permit year or if an owner failed to pay taxes or fees.

Council would hold hearings on permit suspensions being upheld and potential revocations, where rental owners can have attorneys present and present evidence and testimony.

The committee meeting featured more than 90 minutes of public comment, with the vast majority of the crowd offering some level of opposition to the plan.

Island resident and lawyer John Davidson said the drafted plan has a myriad of legal loopholes and ambiguities that could be challenged by rental owners.

Island Time Hilton Head owner Dru Brown, who said he manages 100 short-term rental units across the island, brought up concerns about whether the plan would require multiple-unit owners to acquire a permit for each unit. He asked the committee to “understand the gravity” of what the proposed rules would mean to the area economy and to have all potential questions answered before moving forward with enacting an ordinance. He was frustrated that town staff could not even clearly identify how many total rentals there are on the island that would fall under the ordinance.

Multiple property managers said they were year-round residents who live here and want to keep the beauty of their home intact. They said they rarely have issues with their tenants and owners and questioned who was forcing the issue of needing an ordinance.

Ames responded by reiterating that, while he understands the vast majority of owners have addressed any potential issues promptly, there is a small group of rental owners and lessees who are disrupting the island quality of life, making an ordinance a necessary evil.

Ames also said the permitting and enforcement would clearly identify if the problems are being largely created by absentee owners who have no ties to the island other than profits, as many of those opposed to the ordinance suspect.

It was clear from both public and committee comments that many questions still needed to be addressed, such as whether these rules would also apply to timeshare units. Davidson posed a number of scenarios where short-term rentals might be needed, such as a house sale that did not close where the seller may need short-term housing. He questioned the town’s definition of a short-term rental, which in the ordinance is said to be any residential property in town offered for paid occupancy for less than 30 days.

Other suggestions were raised, such as requiring permit numbers to be displayed on any advertising to aid in potential complaints being properly addressed.

Ames said that there would likely be many questions addressed ahead of presenting the ordinance to the council, and that the full council would likely make more revisions ahead of or during the April 19 meeting.

“The complexity of the balancing act we’re trying to achieve here can’t be overestimated,” he said.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. timwood@blufftonsun.com.