I’ve been asked for my letter to DNR and the POA Board.
I am writing as a passionate and committed volunteer for DNR of 16 years; I am permitted by DNR to lead Dewees Island’s turtle team, I was instrumental in applying for Dewees Island’s WHSRN designation, I drafted the first pass at what became the Lake Timicau Restoration Project, and I have worked for conservation on Dewees since I got here in 2003. I have been an owner on Dewees Island since then, and a full time resident of that island for the last 8 years. I am also an active advisory board member of SC Audubon and have served on the board of the Lowcountry Biodiversity Institute.
Recently, a small group of Dewees owners met with you to air their concerns about “commercial activity” on the island, and I am concerned that they are focused on their own interests instead of the community at large. Perhaps they are not aware of all the facts and the history of our Environmental Programs, as well as the economic realities of running our island, and you weren’t presented with a balanced picture of this complex issue.
Real Estate sales support the environmental programs that support our conservation easement. In 2004, I joined the Dewees Island Environmental Committee. A former educator, I am passionate about the mission of conservation, and I volunteered to lead summer environmental camps for three years. Our environmental budget was based on income from a percentage of lot sales. For several years after the departure of the developer, we were selling a few lots a year valued between $300,000 and $1,000,000. By 2007, some of those lot owners allowed banks to foreclose on them, pushing values down. As the Chair of the Environmental Program board, I became concerned about the lack of sales and began to look at what budget cuts would mean to our valuable staff, who help us keep our commitments to the easement and land plan. So I rolled up my sleeves, got a real estate license, and worked on marketing the island.
Dewees is a niche market and not easy to sell. Realtors who work off the island are reluctant to bring clients here: the details of the ferry, getting golf carts and other island logistics are huge disincentives for them to show property. In addition, only a small percentage of buyers are interested in living this intimately with nature. From 2007 to 2016 we watched undeveloped property values decline by 90%. As people walked away from lots, I saw the values for a marshfront lot go from well over $300,000 to a sale at $8,000. In addition, the buyer who bought for that low price was unable to pay the carrying costs, which means that the overall budget of the island gets a shortfall for that lot. Foreclosure can take years. The environmental program budget, which would have received a fee of $3750 at a value of $300,000 now receives a fee of $10, and zero in the event of a foreclosure. We need those fees to maintain our environmental programs. More lots were abandoned in the great recession, and the economic realities of running the island raised costs to owners significantly over the last decade. We have not seen an improvement in those prices until a slight rise recently.
Short term rentals have been part of this community since the first homes were built here. I have chronicled the history of those policies and communications in this blog post. Owners bought with the specific expectation that they would be able to rent their homes, even though most of them would prefer not to. In the last few weeks, I have seen six buyers either change their minds completely or put their plans on hold until this is worked out. Other recent owners of homes and lots have asked me to “dump” them on the market. This will further affect prices.
I am certain that cessation of short term rentals will have a catastrophic effect on sales, because most people can’t commit to the level of costs we have on the island without some sort of safety net if their personal situations change. 63% of my buyers over the last five years rented before buying. ALL of my buyers over the last month have walked away or put their plans on hold until this issue is straightened out. This island is my passion, and real estate sales fund our environmental programs so that we can have environmentally sustainable drinking and wastewater treatment, shorebird restoration projects, coyote research projects, motus bird-tracking tower participation, impoundment management, endangered species management, poison free pest control, road management, invasive species management, etc.
We have systems in place to educate renters and guests. It is also my passion to educate renters (and all visitors, because I believe some owners guests are much harder on the island than renters because they don’t get educational material). Here is a blog post about educational maps that we have paid for so ALL visitors to the island get the top facts. Here are some educational videos I made for the environmental program:
Our Residential Use Study group has made additional suggestions and provided materials in advance of this summer season to address gaps discovered last year.
Rental Management companies provide visitor oversight. They require guests to read and agree to our guidelines before ever arriving on the island. I provide support for this, putting this book in each rental home so guests understand how to interact with the island. I developed more videos about packing and transportation. I have helped supervise the intern program that educates guests and visitors, as well as the turtle intern program that provides DNR coverage to Capers Island, Cape Romain, and Dewees.
In addition, I have paid for and provided an app to the POA and the rental companies that educates renters long before ever getting to the island.
Predictable Challenges come with Growth. We have more people on the island than we did in 1998, for sure. We have sixty-five homes instead of 10. Interestingly, a smaller percentage of them are rentals than in the 1990’s. My suspicion is that renters get a bad rap: they are an easy, safe target for everyone to blame things on rather than owners or guests~ they become the perfect scapegoat;once they are gone, they can’t defend their position or set the record straight. We do have challenges associated with our allowed growth. Our conservation easement provides for 150 homes. Dedicated community members have met to address these issues and are working on future infrastructure needs and what our optimal development model looks like. We need to improve some of our logistics: Transportation and parking (neither of which is spelled out in our conservation easement) need some immediate attention, and we have committees looking at them. But none of that is possible without a healthy sales program.
Even a “crowded” day isn’t that crowded. The busiest day ever on Dewees was the day of the total solar eclipse in 2017. We took some drone photos of the most crowded beach any of us had ever seen. As you can see, the crowds are not overwhelming the ecosystem in any way. Almost all of the homes were full, some with renters and some with owners and their guests. And yet the crowd looks almost nonexistent compared to other places. This is a manageable group.
It is unfortunate that a vocal minority took their concerns and personal perspectives to you instead of addressing them through our existing channels. Our community and governing body are aware of several issues from last summer and have been taking steps to correct them. Several of those owners were part of a Residential Use Study Group designed to address concerns from last summer. That group implemented a number of new procedures and recommendations: but it is still too soon to evaluate their efficacy. My suspicion is that these owners are against all people on the island except themselves. That’s a short-sighted viewpoint that does not take into account all the processes already in place and economic factors affecting our environmental health.
Our Land Plan and Conservation Easements provide for commercial service and support.. “No commercial activity of any nature shall be allowed on Dewees Island; however, minimum service and support activities and related facilities shall be allowed for the common use and enjoyment of those persons residing and/ or staying as guests on the Island such as those for recreation, eating, lodging, storage, maintenance, docking. and supply.” Management of our own homes and facilities outsourced to a local company as a means of defraying costs would constitute a service and support activity.
Our community has been actively working to address the issue of visitor impacts. All visitors to the island, paying and non-paying, need education and accountability to our covenants. But these are all things we can solve in-house, and we have volunteer committees, elected directors, and dedicated staff to put them in place.