The Road to Sea Pines Residential/Commercial Balance

 

Introduction – the Sea Pines community

 

There are over 5,000 Sea Pines Plantation residential property owners.  About 30% have Sea Pines as their principal residence. The rest live in over 20 states and several countries. On average, these latter owners visit the plantation about once a year and most rent out their Sea Pines homes on the vacation markets. Many of the 30% were once in the 70% group. 

Among the owners are a growing number of concerned residents who have enjoyed different life experiences but have a common interest in maintaining the cultural lifestyle that first attracted them to Sea Pines. Many of these talented residents have volunteered their capabilities to the arts, to education forums, to the environment and to a variety of charities.

Along the way these active persons have noticed changes to the island lifestyle, a perception that what first drew them to Sea Pines is being altered by significant population growth outside the plantation. These Sea Pines pioneers were attracted to the Charles Fraser vision of living near the beach, playing golf and tennis, and, especially, living within a natural environment, enjoying and respecting the unique low country vegetation and wildlife.

The Sea Pines commercial entities serving tourism derive from those introduced by Fraser during the plantation development period. Today these derivative businesses – Sea Pines Resort, Sea Pines Center, South Beach businesses and Marriott time-share enterprises – are separately owned and operated but often act in unison to advance their business goals.

This essay reviews what Sea Pines was marketed to be by Fraser, and how his promise to resident investors is threatened today by the derivative businesses’ aggressive pursuit of tourism.  The impact of this pursuit on plantation lifestyle is addressed, including the unfair allocation of plantation upkeep expense.

 

Sea Pines community lifestyle – the vision and the promise

 

Charles Fraser’s sense of a balanced community embracing and protecting the environment, while placing residential owners within it, was original and unique. He placed houses and other buildings in a forest environment, ensuring that their height stayed below treetops. He built winding roads on which the driver is introduced to the wooded environment with minimal human objects in sight.

Power lines were not permitted over roads, being placed away in the forest instead. Signs were kept to a minimum, set low on attractive wood slats. Streetlights were generally not permitted, the night belonged to nature’s critters. The Sea Pines forest and several lakes and ponds were set aside to provide a sense of country. Even a horse farm was included in the scene.

Golf courses and other amenities were strategically placed to integrate into this countrified environment and walking/bike paths meandered throughout the plantation. Other gated community developers copied his design.

Residential owners bought their plantation homes because of his unique vision. And like the resident owners, when visitors come to Sea Pines they aren’t so much renting a home or villa as they are renting an active, multifaceted lifestyle.

The sense of balance with nature and human activity provided by the Fraser vision is under stress today. Economic imbalance between residents and tourism threatens to degrade the lifestyle that pioneer and successor residents came to enjoy.

Simply put, the permanent and visiting populations of Hilton Head, Bluffton and Beaufort County have dramatically increased since the beginning of the Sea Pines adventure. The impact of this reality on the plantation lifestyle is becoming more evident each passing year within the Town of Hilton Head and within Sea Pines.

 

Eroding the lifestyle promise – increased resort marketing to tourism

 

In 2014 the Town of Hilton Head received about 2,645,000 visitors. With a population of 37,000 residents, the increasing influx of visitors stresses island resources while providing the basis of the local tourist economy. While the architectural planning introduced by Fraser was adopted by the Town of Hilton Head, commercial demands to support the tourist industry are chipping away at the valued lifestyle. Less and less are stores and service stations screened from roadside view by native vegetation. Hilton Head is morphing into “every-town America” with standard fast food restaurants and chain enterprises.

The 54-square-mile town, with 13 miles of beach and 64 miles of bike paths, does not have the road system required to support the visiting population in the manner envisioned by Fraser and expected by the resident population. Because the Hilton Head plantations were developed before the town was incorporated, there is no way to provide for new road alternatives to Route 278.  The low country island, with its many estuaries and swamps, does not have available land to develop additional roadways.

The Sea Pines Circle is a principal node in the limited island road network, and 40% of the traffic entering the island leads directly to it via the Route 278 bypass. The circle is the front door to Sea Pines and has become jammed.

New south-island commercial projects at Coligny and Forest Beach areas will place further pressure on the circle, which is already over capacity. Additional traffic from the new USCB 400-student campus will have a sudden increasing negative effect. Sea Pines residents have not been fully informed of this reality by CSA and ASPPPO boards nor have the boards provided pushback to town planners who fail to evaluate limited traffic capacity and its impact on lifestyle issues.

And the pressure to market to increasing tourism continues.  Recently the town leadership suggested Hilton Head should re-identify itself as a resort community in lieu of a residential community. This persistent commercial pressure is also advancing within Sea Pines.

 

Sea Pines commercial marketing – increase the daily visitor volume

 

The island-wide commercial push to increase services accommodating more tourists at resident expense does not stop at the Sea Pines gate. Within the plantation all the commercial interests are eager to accommodate more daily visitors as well as weekly rental customers with little regard for increasing stress to residents’ lifestyle. 

County-wide population growth is generating an increasing number of local “day trippers” who desire to enjoy Sea Pines ambiance, stressing the plantation infrastructure. For a mere six dollars, a car-load can enjoy ease of access to all areas of the Sea Pines beach, leisure paths and fishing.

The Sea Pines trolley system, first designed to move tournament patrons during the Heritage tournament, has taken on a life of its own. Additional stops have been proposed that encourage daily visitors to get to the beach in private neighborhood areas not planned for and unsupported for tourism.

Additionally, the trolley system is a drain on the CSA community budget and is a part of the issue of unfair allocation of expenses to residents.

Past attempts to offload commercial expense onto residents included an attempt to place an economic zone in Harbour Town to pay for marina dredging. This was considered without regard to public funding requiring a right for the public to enter Sea Pines without paying a fee, thereby ending the plantation as a gated community. Only the residents’ uproar against the idea stopped its adoption.

The Sea Pines Resort is now pressing to become a five-star hotel resort with additional rooms and forcing rearrangement of Harbour Town, including moving the tennis academy and the swimming pool, with likely restrictions on residents’ use.

 

The fundamental commercial/residential issue: failed governance

 

A fiscal crisis accentuates the disparities in sharing the costs of maintaining the plantation. To pay for Hurricane Matthew expenses, the CSA board decided to require a special assessment of $5,971,140 from residential owners, $271,442 from the Resort and $65,927 from the remaining commercial businesses. Residential owners paid twice the normal assessment. It is not clear how the Resort assessment was calculated since for the past many years they have been paying half the normal annual assessment required of them by covenant. The assessment method for the Salty Dog and the rest of the commercial entities is not visible to the residential owners although the covenants require it to be based on retail sales.

Tensions existing between the residential owners and the commercial interests result from specific language in the covenants. These tensions include the effects of commercial expansion pressure on lifestyle of the residents and the sharing of the cost to maintain infrastructure and community services.

Many residential owners are not aware that the Resort has paid only half of its covenant requirement of an annual one percent of revenue for infrastructure and community services for the last fifteen years. Many do not know that the Sea Pines Center has a claim of veto power over increases to the gate fee that has never been challenged and is improperly derived from the original residential parcel deeds that formed the center. Many do not know that the Salty Dog business pays its fee based on the rental incomes to it from separate wholly owned subsidiaries rather than fulfill the covenants’ expectations. Such continuing situations have not been publicly aired within the Sea Pines residential community as they should be, in part because of underperforming plantation governance.

The issue is defined by two opposing views of Sea Pines: the commercial viewpoint that seeks an increasing public visitor population and the resident owner viewpoint that seeks to preserve the balanced use of the Sea Pines paradise promised to resident owners, their visitors and limited commercial enterprise.

The commercial/residential question can be framed by the question: “Does the Resort exist within the plantation or does the plantation exist within the Resort?” The marketing image presented by the Resort and other commercial entities implies the plantation exists within the Resort. Commercial information provided every visitor by the CSA Gate Committee exemplifies this view.

In contrast, permanent residents and long-term non-resident owners know the Resort is a part of the Sea Pines Plantation. But, additionally, is the Sea Pines Resort indeed truly a resort? For most people, a resort is a self-contained commercial establishment that completely provides a vacationer’s wants, such as food, drink, lodging, sports, entertainment and shopping on its premises. But the Sea Pines Resort, whose separate facilities dot the plantation, depends on the shared infrastructure paid for principally by residential owners.

Nevertheless, the Sea Pines Resort markets itself to the outside world as though the combined residential and commercial assets constitute a complete and unified resort. The Resort even flies its flag with the United States and South Carolina flags at the plantation entrance. There is no Sea Pines Plantation flag.

The Sea Pines Resort’s marketing claim on the plantation’s private residential property and infrastructure is a stretch from the truth. For such an arrangement to be acceptable to Sea Pines residents, the impact on resident lifestyle and infrastructure expense must be fairly negotiated. The current situation is unfair to the resident population and if not negotiated will eventually degrade the resident/tourist experience and the viability of the Resort itself.

Understanding why the Sea Pines residential owners are not better served regarding sharing of plantation expenses requires a review of the purpose and conduct of the CSA and ASPPPO boards.

The CSA mission is: “To protect, maintain, and enhance the resources of Sea Pines for the benefit of the Sea Pines Community.” The ASPPPO mission is: ”To represent the common interests of the Sea Pines residential property owners in all matters.  ASPPPO does this by ensuring compliance with all covenants and by communicating and acting upon all issues of importance to residential property owners.” Of the two boards ASPPPO is the more important to the protection of the Sea Pines lifestyle because it is vested with authority to assure covenants are respected and to call for referendums to resolve identified covenant issues.

It is significant that today the boards do not articulate their purpose in terms of mission statements, preferring to say the purpose is contained in their incorporation documents, thereby blurring the difference of the intent of the organizations. An incorporation purpose and a board mission are two different things. A mission statement clarifies the purpose and defines the activities the board will pursue to achieve the purpose. Blurring the different mission statements suggests an intent to eventually merge the boards, eliminating the ASPPPO resident-centric mission. This objective has occasionally been stated publicly by board members who see little purpose for ASPPPO.

Currently, most of the resident-representing members of the CSA board also serve on the ASPPPO board, which creates an environment for conflict of interest. Some current and previous residential board members have had business relationships with plantation businesses or have interests themselves in the plantation while serving. Some have served on other local business or civic boards that may do business with CSA without disclosing such relationships. Actual or potential conflict of interest is especially a non-addressed issue in selecting resident representatives for board service. While every Sea Pines resident has a right to serve, all residents have a right to expect that their interests are always served in board matters without reservation. A formal transparent conflict of interest statement is needed.

Over the course of time both boards came to rely solely on CSA for administrative and communication services. The boards essentially have become one even though their missions are very different. The result is that an ASPPPO mission to focus on commercial intrusion on resident lifestyle is missing. Because the commercial members of the CSA Board can serve over many years, advancing items of their concern, and because they always vote as a bloc, the balance between commercial and resident interests is tilted in favor of business. This effect is further advanced by the covenants, many of which are written with bias in favor of the Resort. Because the business interests drive both the CSA and the ASPPPO agendas, the impact of commercial intrusion is unnoticed until a crisis and the residents are forced to communicate and organize outside the ASPPPO forum.

 

Rebuilding ASPPPO – the road to residential/commercial balance

 

The first step to establishing a residential/commercial balance in Sea Pines Plantation is to recognize the imbalance of power between the parties. Resident property owners have been asleep at the switch for many years while commercial influence has slowly encroached on their Sea Pines Plantation lifestyle.

ASPPPO has been effectively captured by the CSA board by its failure to have a standing residents’ agenda and its own communication function. The complete dependence on CSA administrative support is accompanied with subtle and direct commercial bias. This dependence denies the residents’ right to understand issues in the economic evolution of tourism growth and its shift toward pursuing an increase in daily and short-term visitors. The resulting impact to infrastructure and plantation lifestyle is not being managed or even evaluated.

The commercial interests’ power must be checked by an independent ASPPPO organization with active committees serving residents’ economic and lifestyle interests. Until ASPPPO prepares and defends a standing agenda, commercial developments for increasing tourism will further threaten the Sea Pines lifestyle. Resident owners must take a stand now before it is too late.

This missing agenda must address increasing population within the county and the town as well as internal plantation resident/commercial interests. The agenda should focus on the following plantation issue areas:

  • Capacity/Build-out
  • Investment/Reinvestment
  • Commercial/Resident Balance of Power
  • Infrastructure Expense Sharing
  • Covenants Issues
  • Town Planning Impacts

Achieving this agenda requires an ASPPPO board that understands its mission and the functions required to achieve it. The following functions must be articulated within the ASPPPO membership and practiced by the ASPPPO board:

  • Establish and maintain ASPPPO identity
  • Represent Sea Pines homeowners
  • Protect and enhance property owner rights
  • Maintain open communications
  • Define issues and perform analyses
  • Provide legal action when needed
  • Provide covenants education
  • Establish corporate memory
  • Collect dues and manage budget

Based on observations of the current and previous ASPPPO boards, there is no recognition of the need for these functions. The current practice is for both boards to pursue the same CSA operations-centric agenda favoring commercial plantation activities. For this reason, changes to ASPPPO can only be made by the ASPPPO membership body through external pressure on the current board and by election of new issue-educated members.

The Alliance for Sea Pines Future has been established to field and elect new candidates and to pressure the board via issues study and communication with resident owners. Alliance is dedicated to the education of all Sea Pines residents and fair negotiation with Sea Pines commercial entities to protect and enhance plantation lifestyle. Until ASPPPO matures to accept its full mission role, the Alliance for Sea Pines Future organization will perform these missing functions. To accomplish this goal Alliance proposes to:

  • Research and document residents’ issues and recommendations and dialog with residents using websites and other communication forums.
  • Recruit new ASPPPO members based on issue areas, member skills, interests and knowledge organized in “community of interest” committees.
  • Establish a library consisting of issue-oriented white papers, briefings and references that support committee findings and recommendations.
  • Provide active meeting support to Alliance ASPPPO members when requested to do so.

Once an educated ASPPPO membership has been achieved, by the adoption of the missing functions, the “road to residential/commercial balance” can be negotiated. Alliance can then focus on recruiting and educating its members to serve on ASPPPO committees and to run for ASPPPO office. This process will assure that true resident representation will endure over time.

 

Reference Material

 

ASPPPO Mission Statement

CSA Mission Statement

CSA property owner database

2010 Sea Pines real assessed property valuation

2010 Sea Pines building permit data

2014 Hilton Head Island resident and visitor population data

Various Island Packet articles

Profits and Politics in Paradise, Michael N. Danielson