By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Coyotes, crowds and citizen concerns were the hot topics at a very well attended Sullivan’s Island Public Safety meeting on Dec. 3, 2014.
The main items on the agenda were a petition to allow 7 foot high fences on the island, and a discussion over crowd-control during the two large events on the island; the Polar Bear Plunge, scheduled for Jan. 2, and St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations in March.
The petition, signed by 34 residents, requested the town modify fence height regulations to allow back-yard fences as high as seven feet, the current limit is five, for protection against coyotes.
An originator of the petition, Natalie Bluestein, stood up and spoke passionately about her concern for her two Springer Spaniels being a motivating factor behind the petition. “I have 2 dogs that I have spent a lot of money on training to be therapy dogs,” Bluestein said.
“At night I let them out to play and there’s a coyote lying in wait on the other side of my 5ft fence almost every night.” She went on to explain the science behind the 7 foot limit, indicating that research shows coyotes can’t jump that high.
“I want to raise my fence to 7 feet to protect my dogs,” she said. “The first time [a coyote] does (go into my yard) I can tell you as a lawyer the town will really regret it.”
“Whatever we can do to prevent injury to our residents, their children and their pets, I would urge Town Council to act decisively and promptly,” councilmember Jerry Kaynard, present as a member of the audience, said.
The discussion on this issue quickly turned into one about the coyote problem in general. With many voices expressing concern that the coyotes are becoming more threatening and encounters with them more frequent.
“I think the difference between this year and last year when we took a wait and see approach is a growth in the population,” said one resident. “We’re seeing them in packs. We shouldn’t have to live in fear. I don’t think we need to wait until an incident occurs. We need to change our policy and be a bit more aggressive.”
A newer resident to the island, Andy McFarland, had some personal experiences to share from his previous town.
“I used to live in Rhode Island where we had a lot of experience with coyotes. We had a lot of the same issues. Initially people said live and let live. Then they killed off the squirrels, outdoor cats, then once that population is gone they go over the fences and go for dogs, as big as springer spaniels.
“If you’re still in the mindset of live and let live attitude,” McFarland continued, “I’m telling you coyotes don’t work that way. In my town they trapped and shot the entire population.”
Alarmed at how the discussion was turning from fences to protect against coyotes to eradicating the species, Rob Fico, spoke out against the petition, which he had signed. “That petition was presented to us at a home along the art tour and presented in such a way as ‘I really want a 7ft fence,’ not that we want to annihilate a species on the island,” he said.
“I would urge sensitivity to the unintended consequence to arbitrarily eradicating a species. You mention rats becoming a problem, who do you think is challenging the rats? How about the birds? Everybody likes the raptors. You start removing food sources from a food chain and it has a ripple effect. Councilmember Chauncey Clarke brought the meeting to order.
“The purpose of this meeting is to hear all of your input. We have to do something or do nothing. There have been lots of studies on this. We know if you cull them they sometimes bounce back, and you can try and get rid of all them but you may not do it. This issue is not just us, there are visitors to this island that have no idea of the problem. Signage is probably a good idea. A survey of residents is a good idea. We will make a recommendation to council that we modify the current coyote management plan to insert ‛unsafe encounters.’”
The request of a 7 foot fence was passed to council who will send it to the Planning Commission, because it involves a change in zoning.
Despite initially announcing that the issue of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on the island was not going to be discussed in full at this meeting (instead a special meeting has been scheduled for Jan. 13 at 4 p.m.), the audience chose to combine the next agenda item, the upcoming Polar Bear Plunge, with St. Patrick’s Day to have the opportunity to express concerns about the behavior seen at last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
“I think we could go back to just having the discussion about whether either one of these things are appropriate for here,” said one resident. “Are they what we want? We have two events where we are inviting people to come to Sullivan’s and get drunk. With the Polar Bear Plunge we are encouraging people to start drinking at 10 or 11 in the morning under the guise of charity. But if you look at the contributions the businesses make to the Special Olympics, it’s not based on a percentage of sales. It’s based on what they want to donate—I checked the records and there was at least one year when one of the businesses did not contribute anything. Charity is a guise for this.”
Both the fire chief and police chief stressed that the biggest public safety concern surrounding both events are “drunks” and “traffic flow” and the potentially disastrous combination of both. They were clear to differentiate between the St Patrick’s Day and Polar Bear Plunge however. Chief Howard expressing his opinion that St. Patrick’s Day attracts “a different crowd—one I don’t think the island wants over here.” Whereas the Polar Bear Plunge attracts more of a family friendly crowd. “It’s a different crowd, mostly families.”
The actual issue on the table was applications from local restaurants, Dunleaveys, HomeTeam and Poe’s for permission for “outside sales” on Jan. 2, the day of the plunge. There was also the issue of traffic management and pedestrian safety.
“Town needs to say yes or no to those of us who have petitioned for outside sales,” Shaun of Home Team, said. “There’s going to be a lot of people here, unless y’all are going to squash this.”
“Whatever we do is wrong, whatever we do is going to be a problem. But the people are coming,” Councilmember Clarke said.
The final Public Safety Committee recommendation to council was to close Station 22 to 22 1/2 from 12 – 4 p.m. On Jan. 2, and put a fence line at the gutter all the way down the street, allowing for corralling of crowds outside the restaurants, which will be allowed to sell food “outside” but not alcohol.