By Brian Sherman, The Island Eye News Editor
Neither the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nor the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has a problem receiving phone calls and emails from Sullivan’s Island residents concerned about the Town Council’s decision to settle a long-simmering lawsuit, a decision that will allow the municipality and beachfront residents to remove trees and other vegetation from the Maritime Forest.
As far as taking any type of concrete action, however, both the Corps and DHEC are waiting to hear from the town about its plans to react to a mediated settlement the Council approved by a 4 to 3 vote Oct. 2.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be involved in this or not. Our general posture is that we as a regulatory body assess proposals,” said Sean Boone, project manager with the regulatory branch of the Corps’ Charleston District. “Much hinges on the ultimate plan that comes from the town and what they intend to do and how they intend to do it.”
“It’s hard to speculate without knowing what they’re planning to do,” said Barbara Neale, senior program analyst/constituent services with DHEC.
“Right now, there’s nothing before us to review. If they propose to do something that triggered the removal of trees beyond normal cutting of limbs, it’s hard to know what that threshold would be. It could be a permit from our office or certification of another state or federal permit might be needed.”
“We’re open to getting comments,” she added. “If they want to send general comments, that’s fine.”
So how long will it be before DHEC and the Corps of Engineers might play a role in determining what ultimately will happen in the Maritime Forest? That will take three or four weeks, Town Administrator Andy Benke told The Island Eye News on Oct. 27.
He explained that Sullivan’s Island has hired the engineering firm Thomas & Hutton to develop a plan for the forest that complies with the terms of the settlement.
“That plan will be placed in front of the Corps of Engineers, DHEC and maybe Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Natural Resources and the Land Trust,” Benke explained.
He went on to say that Thomas & Hutton is currently in the process of putting together a team that will include a forester, an expert on wetlands and someone familiar with DHEC regulations. The engineers will compile a report so contractors can submit competitive bids to do the work for which the town will be responsible. Homeowners who live near the Maritime Forest will have to pay for any additional work that will be permitted under the terms of the agreement.
According to Boone, the Corps of Engineers will not have jurisdiction over what happens in the entire Maritime Forest but only to activities that involve water, which includes wetlands.
“Specifically, we do not necessarily regulate trees or vegetation,” Boone said. “It’s a gray area. If someone were to propose removing a bunch of trees with heavy machinery in a wetland, they may need a permit from us.”
Boone explained that once the Corps sees the town’s proposal, it will determine if and what type of permit might be required. He said the answer to that question will determine if there will be an opportunity for public comment. He said “a couple of dozen” people have contacted the Corps concerning the Council’s decision, referring to them as “a good cross section and diverse group, not only those for and against but those undecided.”
“Right now, we want to make ourselves available to the public if they want to reach out to us,” he said.
Neale said there will be an opportunity for the public to review and comment on the town’s plans. She pointed out that DHEC’s authority could extend to any work that is proposed in the entire Maritime Forest.
The bottom line is that neither the Corps of Engineers nor DHEC will take any concrete action concerning the fate of the Maritime Forest until the town of Sullivan’s Island determines exactly what it intends to do about its mediated agreement with beachfront homeowners who brought legal action against the town a decade ago.
“Step one is for the town to figure out what they are going to do,” said Glenn Jeffries, chief of corporate communications with the Corps’ Charleston district. “We may or may not be involved, depending on the answer to all these questions.”