From The Blog

Future Visions: A Dialog With Chairman Russ Warren

The association’s new Chairman of the Board, Russ Warren, shares his thoughts on Kiawah’s future and his board’s vision for the coming year.

Digest: What is your reaction to the recent member vote in support of using funds to preserve land for wildlife protection?

Russ Warren: I am delighted, although I don’t think all the reasons are apparent. Obviously, it will allow Kiawah to continue to protect its natural habitat. I cannot overstate the fact that the island’s wildlife and the many habitat acres that support it are critical to Kiawah’s essential character. Nor can I overstate that without the supportive vote of members, the build-out of the island could have virtually eliminated Kiawah’s existing populations of bobcat and painted bunting. The population of other wildlife species would have been significantly reduced.

Digest: What are the less apparent reasons?

RW: First, this is the first step in the board taking a policy role rather than spending an inordinate amount of time in the association’s daily operational management. As most members know, this past year, under the leadership of Dick Sula, the board realized it needed to do much more in the way of strategic planning and policy development.

Further, our very able staff should be “given its head” to administer and also given greater operations accountability for appropriately serving all members. The woodlands proposal shows the first fruits of that transformation. Second, while there is no doubt that the members principally voted for woodlands protection, they also signaled their confidence in the board to effectively use members’ reserve funds.

They accomplished this by lifting some significant constraints on how money had to be allocated. As you know, the woodlands vote was 85% in favor and just 15% opposed. The new board sees that as mandate to continue to be thoughtful and cost effective in its actions, but bold in vision. With this member support, a planning and policy direction and a focus on the future, the stars have just been aligned for the first sea change in board operations in a number of years.

Digest: What kind of changes are you thinking about?

RW: Most of these changes will come out of strategic planning that the board and member committees will undertake over the next twelve months. The goal is to produce a plan—with input from all interested members—that will provide a blueprint for operational policies for the next five to seven years. Of course, simply stating, “We are going to have a plan.” probably, by itself, does not excite anyone. We have all witnessed failed planning processes. However, what is now unique is that each board member wants the process to be truly visionary. This leads to a core question “How are the needs of a growing population addressed, particularly since the association is expected to increase its membership by approximately 200 over the next three years (based on the approximate number of new homes being approved per year)? ” A more advanced question is, “What are the implications of the changing demographics and interests of association members?”

What the association provided five years ago might be meager fare for those who would make Kiawah their full-time or part-time home seven years from now. At an even higher plane, what should community associations offer members in the future that has not been envisioned by any association today? Successful businesses like Apple, Lexus and Marriott have to think that way, so why shouldn’t we? As important, the board and members have the talent to answer that question. No community in the nation has a stronger talent pool than this one!

Digest: It sounds like you are talking about an expensive plan.

RW: Maybe. Maybe not. We do not yet know what members want or envision. But what counts is not whether it is expensive or cheap, but whether it is cost effective. The plan has to produce significantly more benefits than cost. Besides, you wouldn’t believe how cheap a ,new project can be when the cost is spread out among the over 4,000 members’ properties, all of whom can also share in the benefits. If the project were financed over a number of years, the cost would be almost nothing and the benefit would be immediate. If the reserves are adequate, then perhaps the whole plan, or a significant part of it, can be funded from that source.

Digest: What else is important to the board this year?

RW: Well, we certainly want strategic planning to be our greatest focus, but we think some other concepts are also appropriate. Presently, operations on the island seem to be compartmentalized into four worlds: resort, developer, town and association, with each compartment drawing a bright line around its area of authority. A cooperative whole-island approach could improve communication and services for members. I believe it would also better serve the needs of the other three worlds. I do not think they want compartments any more than we do.

For example, in its March orientation and retreat, the new board decided it would take more public stands on issues that would clearly benefit members, like providing safer roads into Kiawah. The town has done good work towards that end, and now the association should step forward, adding the voice of its almost 8,000 members to the town’s. We need to add our voice to the valid complaint that Charleston County receives far more in tax revenues than it provides in benefits. And we need to be helpful to the town and the resort as they work through their zoning negotiations.

On other issues, the association wants to consider a number of new ventures. We might want to study whether emergency medical service on the island is adequate for the next five years. The last study was completed about five years ago. On another issue, Night Heron Park is a great place for all of us, although it is privately owned. The association would like assurances that the island’s park, or a large portion of it, will be preserved for various recreational uses. In the spirit of cooperation, we expect to give something for that. As an economist, I can attest to the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch!

We want to undertake more effective partnerships with the resort, the town and the developer. We hope that once we have set our blueprint ,for the future, we can enlist their help in sharing resources for our ,mutual benefit. Some members think the resort and the developer are natural adversaries to the association. I do not agree. Th ere is great harmony and respect between us.

Digest: Do you see any major hurdles to overcome?

RW: Yes, there are several, but they are not insurmountable. First, we need to help the membership see the board and our association in a new light. We no longer want to be just the caretakers that provide bike paths and a swimming pool and keep the ponds clean. Words and phrases like “being the community’s leader,” “promoting active good will,” “being visionary and decisive” and “being on the forefront” – not just of community associations nationwide but of all organizations nationwide – are phrases I hope will describe us ten years from now. Some association members want things just the way they were. That’s true of any community, isn’t it? However, others will step forward and support a new vision that enhances property values and benefits the membership.

We also need to develop some new ways of identifying member needs. If the board had listened only to the comments on the local member message board, or the negative comments of some of the more vocal members, it would never have proposed the woodlands project. But the board believed that the majority would see the common sense of the proposal and support it. Th e members did. Moreover, the board learned from that experience that while we need to listen to the opinions of all, we should listen more than we have in the past to those members who are less vocal, including those who visit the island infrequently. Th at might require that we develop statistically representative focus groups that we regularly sample to better understand the opinions of all.

Finally, we need to recognize that the current board stands on the shoulders of prior volunteers. I am thinking of those men and women who stayed true to the vision of an excellent ,community, sometimes under challenging circumstances. They made the island what it is today. Th is includes past board members, the island’s many volunteers, its civic and social leaders, the developer and the resort. Looking to the future, we ask all members to consider board service so we can maintain that quality in future boards of directors.

Digest: What can members expect to see right now that is different?

RW: Right now, we are soliciting members for the strategic planning committee. We are beginning to ask questions of the membership (see sidebar). Soon individual members with special expertise will be contacted to consult with us on specific aspects of the plan. I expect that at the next board meeting on May 7 you will see a proclamation or two in support of issues like safer roads leading to Kiawah. I think the agenda of our board meetings will change such that we will hold discussions on conceptual issues like how to get a better sampling of public opinion. Members will continue to see us redirect operational issues to the staff , and we will monitor their effectiveness rigorously. To accomplish great improvements will require that we keep our board meetings focused on concept, not operational details. A high compliment would be for those who regularly attend board meetings to come to one six months from now and conclude that they surely must be in the wrong meeting because the issues that we are addressing and the process by which we are addressing them is different! Th at won’t happen overnight, but the current board is committed to change which will seal our position as the best community association in the country.