By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
While homeowners at the northern end of Isle of Palms are battling to keep the ocean from their doorsteps, those on the southern tip of Sullivan’s Island are battling each other to decide what to do with all the land that has sprung up in front of theirs.
In the war over how to manage the growth of vegetation on Sullivan’s substantial accreted land, which has been waging for over two decades, finally a battle has been won. On Tuesday, May 20, Sullivan’s Island Town Council voted to adopt as policy a Transition Zone Proposal put forward by councilmember Chauncey Clarke.
The proposal allows for a 100 foot transition zone to be established between homeowners’ property and the accreted land. It doesn’t specify what exactly will happen in that zone, that will come later. This applies to the management planning units zones 1 2, 3 (3a and 3c) and 4 but not to Zone 3b, which is the area in front of Sullivan’s Island Elementary School. The size of the transition zone is also subject to further increase in size by up to 20 percent, according to the adjustment of the seaward boundary line.
The accreting land along the coast of Sullivan’s Island has been an issue for years, and while it began as an extra accumulation of sandy beach back in the late 1980s, it has since evolved into a pre-maritime and developing maritime forest with trees, shrubs and undergrowth. While some residents enjoy the benefit of having a small forest within walking distance of their homes, those with property abutting the land claim increases in animal infestation and decreasing property values due to loss of ocean views.
This vote, although a very small piece of the overall land management puzzle, was a momentous step for a council that hadn’t taken a single vote on the political hot potato issue in seven years. An older resident of the island said “I’ve been coming to these meetings for 20 years and that’s the first time they’ve ever voted on it.”
Perhaps predictably, the proposal sparked a furor among councilmembers, some of whom felt blindsided by the motion, which had not been approved or reviewed by the Land Use and Natural Resources committee, which has been dealing with the accreted land issue at committee level.
In particular, councilmember Pat O’Neil was vocal in his opposition.
“I’m not remotely prepared to vote on this tonight, it needs to go through the LUNR committee,” he said. “I think it would be wrong, wrong, wrong to approve this tonight as it is.” He was referring to the first draft of the policy, which included the names and specific diameters of priority trees that could remain in the accreted land.
Following the amendment of the motion to remove that specification, O’Neil was still unhappy, saying that the policy was substantially different from what the LUNR committee had discussed. He and councilmember Susan Middaugh both voted against the motion. Mayor Perkis was absent due to illness. The remaining four councilmembers voted for the motion, passing it 4 to 2.
Feelings among the standing room only crowd were mixed. Of the eight or so people who stood up during citizen’s comments, more than half argued against the 100ft transition zone, with three speaking for it.
“I am hoping very devoutly that the 100 foot transition zone will be voted,” Harriett McDougal, who lives on the beachside, said. “I would like to repeat the complaint about the enormous pine trees in front of my house that have no place in a maritime forest. I can’t wait to see them go down, preferably not during the next hurricane when they will break through my house. As you know they break like matchsticks.”
The subject of what “belongs” in a maritime forest seems to shift like the sands surrounding it. According to an employee of the Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, there is not set definition of what should or shouldn’t be in the forest. There is no essential difference between a maritime forest and a forest that exists inland, such as the Francis Marion National Forest, where pine trees are plentiful. The designation of a forest as “maritime” is simply a positional one; a forest by the ocean.
Julie Khoury, and her husband Dr. Norman Khoury stated their opposition for the 100 foot zone as proposed. The couple said they felt strongly that the length of the zone should be determined on a case by case basis.
“We are against the island-wide 100 foot transition zone,” Julie Khoury said. “We think it should be according to each unit and according to the science and research that was done.”
Steven Poletti, also a resident of the beachfront, put forward his case the most eloquently with the help of Edgar Allan Poe.
“When people ask me how I want Sullivan’s Island to be in the accreted land I say I want it to be as Edgar Allen Poe said in Gold Bug. ‘No trees of any magnitude are to be seen.’ Ultimately we’ve been having this meeting for 20 years and it’s going to continue to be a very long and expensive process and I promise you it’s not worth it.”
Accreted Land Lawsuit Moves Forward
In related news, the lawsuit filed by Sullivan’s Island residents Nathan and Ettaleah Bluestein, and Theodore and Karen Albenesius against the Town of Sullivan’s Island concerning the management of the forest on the accreting land adjacent to their properties, took a step towards resolution. On Monday, May 19, both parties appeared before Judge Scarborough. The judge dismissed three causes of action in the complaint: unfair trade practices, breach of contract with fraudulent intent and injunction for tax relief and directed the parties to mediate the remaining six.
If mediation is not successful the case will likely move to a jury trial, unless the judge decides to rule in the interim following reviewing the briefs over the next month.