Safety and legal questions are being raised about a newly roped-off section of beach in Sea Pines where the resort has recently begun serving alcohol and food.
Resort and Hilton Head officials say the section of beach that abuts Sea Pines’ Beach Club is privately owned by the resort, allowing it to limit access.
“We have a specific deed to this property,” said Steve Birdwell, president of Sea Pines Resort. “Our property goes over the dunes and extends to the high water line.”
But some residents are questioning whether that’s true and have suggested the beach is public property. The stretch of sand is a popular spot for Sea Pines’ visitors and guests because of its proximity to the Beach Club’s bathrooms, changing rooms, restaurant and other amenities.
Dana Advocaat said she is one of several Sea Pines residents who has contacted the property owners’ board about the issue.
“How does this impact our beach patrol being able to easily navigate through this roped-off area at high tide?” Advocaat said. “It only takes a three-minute delay to miss an opportunity to help someone in danger.”
Surf flows into the lounge area at high tide. Beach users, including the beach patrol, are being rerouted to a 20-foot-wide path behind the lounge area that measures about 150-feet by 50-feet. About 80 orange chairs and 40 umbrellas fill the area.
Sea Pines officials said the beach patrol and the public will always be allowed to pass through the property.
The rope was needed to identify the border of the private property, said John Munro, Sea Pines’ vice president of hospitality, allowing people ordering food and drinks to know the boundaries they must stay within. It is illegal to drink alcohol on Hilton Head’s public beaches and for businesses to sell alcohol and food there.
Town officials first learned Sea Pines owned the section of beach when it asked for a renovation to the Beach Club about a year ago, said Steve Riley, Hilton Head town manager.
“We have been blissfully ignorant,” Riley said. “Everybody thought the beach was the beach and once you got on the beach you were free to transverse.”
Brian Hulbert, town attorney, said beaches on Hilton Head have grown in size in recent years because of renourishment projects in some spots. But in other spots, including the beach at the Beach Club, a natural sand build-up has occurred.
As the beaches have expanded, so have property lines, Hulbert said.
Town officials have since learned that Sea Pines is not the only property owner with the right to rope off its beachfront property, although the town is not certain which other owners also have the right.
“We don’t even fully know what all this means,” Riley said. “We will have to go back to some of these areas and get agreements so that our Beach Patrol can get through there. We are also hoping that the public as a whole will be allowed to pass.”
Riley said the city does not have a formal agreement for access with Sea Pines but hopes to in the future.
Mayor David Bennett was asked to comment on the issue on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but said on Tuesday he was unsure whether he would be able to respond due to a busy schedule.
The state has not weighed in on the issue. Paul Wojoski, a project manager with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the state is looking into the matter.
The lounge area is one of many enhancements the resort has made in an attempt to reach a higher ranking from Forbes, Munro said. About $90 million has been spent in the last five years on enhancements, including the construction of the new Beach Club to replace the dated original one.
The resort is currently ranked as a four-star resort but would like to be at the highest ranking of five-star.
“An exclusive beach area is what people are going to expect at any high-end resort,” Munro said. “The (other) elements of this Beach Club are already five-star quality.”
Tracie Martin of Indiana visited Sea Pines last month and said she enjoyed the exclusive seating area.
“It made visiting the beach really easy,” Martin said. “We didn’t have to haul anything. I would absolutely do it again.”
A set of two beach chairs, an umbrella and a table costs $45 and comes with the ability to order food and drinks, according to resort officials. The same setup outside of the exclusive area costs $35.
A five-star resort on Hilton Head Island could be positive for more than just the resort, said Bill Harkins, town council member.
“It is attractive to a certain segment of the population that will pay for and enjoy impeccable service,” Harkins said. “We have other hotels that are appealing to another population. If you can add a range of hotels to the island, we can reach all the populations.”
Teresa Moss: 843-706-8152