Successfully Navigating the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board

Do you have dreams of building or renovating a home on Sullivan's Island, SC? Many people do, and for those lucky enough to bring this dream to fruition, they will eventually find themselves face-to-face with the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board. For the uninitiated, those words may strike fear into the heart of current and potential home and property owners. But this doesn't have to be the case. At its core, the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board (SIDRB) exists as a review process to protect and improve the aesthetic quality of the island that so many have come to love and want to call home. The SIDRB also provides stringent guidelines for contractors, builders, architects and homeowners to adhere to for proposed residential construction based on design review guidelines and ordinances. Homeowners preparing to submit residential plans before the SIDRB are encouraged to involve qualified professionals at an early stage for improved design quality and to assist in interpreting and adhering to the design review board's guidelines.

The Sullivan's Island Design Review Board hasn't always existed. From 2003-2004 the town of Sullivan's Island conducted a survey of historic buildings which led to the formation of federal and local historic districts as well as the SIDRB. Before this, homeowners could build whatever they wanted. Today, Sullivan's Island has about 1,200 parcels of land that can be developed and about 900 houses. Vacation rentals are prohibited, except for those grandfathered in, as are Airbnb rentals. The Sullivan's Island Design Review Board has ordinances that govern every aspect of the design and planning process, from height restrictions to maximum impervious coverage area, to set backs and everything in between.

Many of the homes on Sullivan's Island fall within the two designated historic districts and are therefore subject to review for most proposed changes. Those homes not designated historic can be altered or demolished without SIDRB approval simply with approval by the Sullivan's Island town administrators at the staff level. Every design review board hearing is open to the public. Residents are always welcome and often attend meetings to provide input and feedback on project design and neighborhood compatibility. Because of the public hearings, we find it both courteous and beneficial, to involve immediate neighbors in the discussion process. Simply going door-to-door to meet neighbors and gain insight into their points of view can be extremely helpful in eliminating potential issues and objections that could come to light in front of the SIDRB. Spending the extra time to help ensure neighborhood compatibility and agreement from neighbors sometimes can save months on the approval process. This has become especially true given the legitimate concerns over the island's drainage and stormwater management.

The first step in gaining approval from the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board is to solicit help and advice from qualified professionals. We encourage a collaborative approach in assembling the project team at the project's outset to ensure client's an enjoyable experience. It is important to involve a licensed architect to help transfer the client's vision onto paper while meeting the overall planning and design objectives. There are two submittal phases many projects must go through to gain approval from the SIDRB: conceptual plans which are often less detailed more with the intent of gaining DRB review and comment; and the final approval package. The Sullivan's Island Design Review Board can choose to grant final approval with a conceptual application if requested in the meeting and if the board agrees. Gaining approval in one design review board meeting instead of two meetings often makes a two to three month difference on when a project become permitted. 

The Sullivan's Island Design Review Board submittal package has five components and all must be completed in order to receive final project approval:

  • Application fee
  • Completed application to Sullivan's Island (designate the nature of intended project—historic property, accessory structure, demolition/relocation, addition/alteration or new construction)
  • Completed DRB Request for Review (breakdown of lot coverages and also a narrative addressing the standards of neighborhood compatibility if the project is not designated in the Historic District)
  • Zoning Standards Compliance Worksheet where setbacks, lot coverage and design standards are considered
  • Completed historic worksheet OR neighborhood compatibility worksheet
  • 11 sets of drawings: including as-built survey (must be certified by an S.C. registered Land Surveyor), site plan, floor plans, exterior elevations, any other relative photographs or documents


Additional professionals that often need to be involved at the outset include: a civil engineer to provide a stormwater management plan, a structural engineer to determine the best design and materials to be used for construction; an arborist to determine if any trees will need to be removed and if so, how to do so and remain within the guidelines of the written tree ordinances; a landscape architect to outline landscape goals and provide a landscape plan which is a necessary component in obtaining final approval. We also recommend having pre-application submittal reviews with the Town of Sullivan's Island zoning administrator and building inspector as their input and guidance is very helpful in ensuring applications meet the town's objectives. It is also helpful for the town staff to have a thorough understanding of the project as their support can be beneficial to an application's approval. The Sullivan's Island Design Review Board meets once a month beginning at 6pm at the Sullivan's Island Town Hall, 2056 Middle Street. The remaining meetings for 2019 are as follows: August 21, September 18, October 16, November 20 and December 18. Agendas are posted at least 24 hours prior to each meeting. DRB submittals are due one month in advance of the meeting date. For more information visit the Town of Sullivan's Island website.

The team at Sea Island Builders has the professional expertise and hands on experience of helping successfully navigate the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board and in guiding clients through the DRB process. Whether performing flood impact studies and land planning with coastal and civil engineers or conducting site evaluation studies, assisting in architectural, interior and landscape design, engineering or actual construction, Sea Island Builders collaborative approach helps deliver a 5-star experience. Our full-service design-build approach provides a single point of accountability for your entire project, from inception to completion. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog article about guidelines for historical renovations on Sullivan's Island.

Below are photographs from two successful collaborations with Swallowtail Architects and great clients. Both of these projects required approval from the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board.

BEFORE photo of a successful design-build collaboration approved by the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board on Middle Street, Sullivan's Island
AFTER photo of a successful design-build collaboration approved by the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board on Middle Street, Sullivan's Island
Successful design-build collaboration on unique site approved by the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board on Raven Drive, Sullivan's Island
Successful design-build collaboration on unique site approved by the Sullivan's Island Design Review Board on Raven Drive, Sullivan's Island
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