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The Bluffton Township Fire District is planning temporary fire stations in Palmetto Bluff and Colleton River Plantation to avert steep increases in home insurance premiums in those communities.
Permanent stations in the gated communities are planned within the next few years, requiring at least 24 new firefighters and costing at least $2.1 million more a year in staffing.
Roberts Vaux, the district's attorney, said the plans were created to meet requirements by the Insurance Services Organization.
Earlier this year, ISO inspectors gave almost all of Palmetto Bluff and most of Colleton River the lowest possible fire protection rating. As a result, most homeowners' insurance premiums rose, and some have increased by more than $10,000 a year.
"Fire protection and level of service is not what is in question here," Chief Barry Turner told a Beaufort County Council subcommittee this month, saying that response times have not changed. "What is in question is the unjustified ... rate increases imposed by the ISO."
ISO ratings are based in part on a home's proximity to a fire station. Those more than five miles away automatically receive a Class 10 -- the lowest rating.
Palmetto Bluff has 228 homes and another 47 are under construction. The development could have more than 3,000 homes at build-out. Colleton River has about 320 homes.
The district stations a fire engine in each neighborhood to help with fire prevention. Previously, the ISO considered these "unmanned stations" when determining homes' proximity to a fire station.
During this inspection, Turner said ISO inspectors failed to recognize the unmanned stations when compiling the ratings. That put large swaths of each community outside the five-mile radius.
The fire district is expected to discuss the ISO rating in executive session during its Tuesday meeting.
An ISO spokesman, in an email, declined to comment specifically on the Palmetto Bluff and Colleton River ratings.
Attempts last week to reach Wes Jones, an attorney representing Palmetto Bluff, were unsuccessful.
Unmanned fire engines already are stationed in both communities, but the district is considering stationing two firefighters in those locations until summer to satisfy ISO requirements. Vaux said this option will be considered only if it convinces ISO to re-establish Class 3 ratings for the communities.
Meanwhile, the fire district will consider hiring at least 24 firefighters to staff the temporary stations after July 1, when the new budget year begins. Vaux said those stations, which would be in maintenance garages inside the communities, could be converted quickly for fire department use.
Discussions also are under way in both communities for permanent fire stations. Although new stations cost more than $2 million to build, Palmetto Bluff's development agreement with the town of Bluffton already requires the community to build and equip a station.
Colleton River's property owner's association is considering making land available for a permanent station. Vaux said the district would make sure the station is within five miles of all homes.
The fire district is funded by a property-tax assessment for those who own property within its boundaries.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Rob Norton of Colleton River Plantation said the community has largely been spared the sharp rate increases that have affected Palmetto Bluff. However, he said some residents noticed steep increase in their bills, and others are bracing for an increase when their policies renew.
He's optimistic the fire district will find a solution to the ISO problem that involves placing firefighters inside the development.
"We are talking about getting some staffing here to make our facility look more like a real station," Norton said.
Although increased staffing comes with higher costs, Vaux said there are costs to inaction as well. Higher home insurance costs, he argued, could hinder new construction in both communities.