I am writing in response to a letter published in the Island Eye on March 11, 2021 asserting that the South Carolina Supreme Court decided the land trust lawsuit in favor of those seeking to vastly expand cutting in the land trust area to gain views of the ocean from their homes. The letter writer claims that as a result of the ruling the legal outcome of continuing the case would be “an unavoidable and tragic, clear cut of the forest.” This inevitable fate was only avoided, according to the letter writer, by four of the Sullivan’s Island seven council members’ “gutsy vote standing up against the loud minority.”
This wholly incorrect view of the case apparently stems from some statements of a few Justices during the oral argument before the South Carolina Supreme Court that the plaintiffs considered favorable to their position. The Court’s actual decision after the argument, however, was a loss for the plaintiffs who had sought to have the Court rule that the words of the land trust document– that it be kept “in its present state” – unambiguously required that the Town of Sullivan’s Island continually cut the vegetation to maintain it at its then current height in 1991 of three feet. The Town argued that the numerous references in the land trust document to keeping it natural and protecting its environmental values – including erosion control and bird habitat – showed that the intent was to not interfere with the vegetation other than the limited cutting the Town allowed for views and a few other purposes named in the land trust document. The Supreme Court’s decision instructed the lower court to conduct a trial to determine the intent of the Town and the Lowcountry Open Land Trust in establishing the land trust agreement.
Anyone with the least amount of familiarity with the land trust formation knows that the intent was to have a natural area. There is much evidence to prove this including newspaper articles, minutes of Town Council meetings, consultant reports, testimony and much more. By contrast, there is no evidence to support the plaintiffs’ position that the intent was to maintain in perpetuity a five-foot vegetation hedge. The plaintiffs’ big chance was to convince the Supreme Court to rule in their favor solely based on the language of the land trust document. Far from the Supreme Court’s decision weakening the Town’s position to keep the land trust area natural as intended, it strengthened it. It is my legal opinion that if the lawsuit had continued without the settlement having been entered into, the Town would have prevailed.