Like the whole Southeastern coast, the Isle of Palms is in transition.
The resort island north of Charleston has done a good job retaining its small-town feel, but change is in the air and angry residents have been packing town council meetings in recent months to vent their anger. Hundreds of yard signs dot the island with the message “Save Our Neighborhoods” and the web address www.SaveIOP.com. In a town with 3,800 registered voters, 825 signed a recent petition demanding the town take action to save Isle of Palms’ cozy, traditional atmosphere.
At the heart of the dispute are two related issues — the size of new houses being built on the island and the use of those houses. Bungalows and ranch houses, which have been the residential standard for decades, are being demolished to make way for huge houses on stilts, some with as many as 10 or 11 bedrooms. The new houses dwarf older residences, shutting out sun and breeze, and changing the character of residential neighborhoods.
Many of these new houses are short-term rental properties — “mini-hotels,” as critics call them. In recent years they have been used for weddings, corporate retreats, fraternity parties, jewelry sales, and other events. Along with these activities are accompanying noise, litter, and other problems. Busloads of people have been ferried to and from these events through the quiet residential streets of Isle of Palms.
“That’s not what Isle of Palms is about,” said IOP resident Catherine Malloy. “These big houses are fine on the oceanfront. That’s where they belong. But now they are creeping inland and they are invading residential neighborhoods and that’s what we are fighting to stop.”
As Malloy and her allies see it, the mini-hotels are in violation of the town’s zoning ordinances. Sitting at the dinner table in her Waterway Drive home — which is piled with papers and maps and looks like the conference room of a lawyer’s office — she reads from the city’s zoning ordinance: The purpose of the single-family residential district is “to discourage unwarranted encroachment by prohibiting commercial uses and to prohibit uses which would interfere with the development or continuation of single family use.”
“That’s the key,” Malloy says. “Commercial use versus residential use. These mini-hotels were clearly built for commercial use. Families do not need that many bedrooms. … Some of these houses can accommodate more than 30 people.”
At least one large house was built with separate locks on bedroom doors, like a hotel, she said. Another house has large signs around the swimming pool, with rules for pool use — including “No Diving” — like those found at hotel pools. “Nobody puts signs like that on their family swimming pool,” she said.
In January 2005, the town planning commission undertook a major study of the problem. After more than two years the commission came back with recommendations to draft new regulations for rental properties and to create a livability court to enforce those regulations.
Over the loud protests of more than 100 residents, the town council gave preliminary approval to the ordinance at a February 27 meeting. The law would limit occupancy to two people to a bedroom of at least 150 square feet, limit the number of cars and types of vehicles allowed at rental properties. But the proposed ordinance does nothing to address the size of houses or to stop short-term rentals.
“This doesn’t solve the problem,” Malloy said. “They are simply trying to legalize something that is clearly illegal.”
IOP city manager Linda Tucker has a different take on the matter.
“Isle of Palms has always had short-term rentals,” she says. “Families have been vacationing here and renting houses for generations. We’re not going to stop that.” On an island with 4,600 residences, the city has issued 1,634 rental licenses.
Furthermore, the town has always allowed in-home businesses in residential neighborhoods, and that will not change either.
In terms of law, little has changed except circumstances, Tucker says. “Maybe we crossed a line when Isle of Palms became so popular.”
Part of the problem is that new houses must be built on pilings above ground to meet federal flood standards. Any house built nearly 10 feet above ground is going to overwhelm traditional ground-level houses and change the traditional roofline of the neighborhood. Beyond that, the issue is behavior, she said.
“The use of the (rental) house is still residential use,” Tucker says. The people who rent these houses are families and social groups, not strangers checking in at a front desk.
With the new rules on the number of occupants and vehicle restrictions, the city has demonstrated it understands the problem and is trying to address it, she said.
“The planning commission and the council worked hard to come to some kind of compromise that would accommodate both sides of the issue.”
The livability court will give residents a new tool for dealing with nuisance renters. People who are hesitant to call the police to solve a problem will be more likely to call the livability court officer, Mayor Mike Sottile says. “Now we have a way of mediating disputes,” he said. “At least it creates a record of complaints” against a rental property, Sottile says. Complaints can result in fines and enough fines can result in a rental property losing its license. The details of this procedure have not been worked out, Sottile said.
The next hearing on the proposed ordinances will take place at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 27, at the Recreation Center. Regardless of the outcome of that meeting, there is still a potential lawsuit pending against the town for failure to enforce its ordinances. And the new livability court does nothing to alleviate the traffic which chokes the town’s streets and roads in the summer and overwhelms other services and infrastructure as the population surges from 3,600 year-round residents to 45,000.