By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
A divided Sullivan’s Island Council has approved a modified plan for removing trees and other vegetation from the town’s Maritime Forest that now requires the approval of the Corps of Engineers and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
At a meeting March 16, the Council voted by a 4-2 margin in favor of the amended plan, which was based on a mediated settlement after more than a decade of negotiations between the town and Nathan and Ettaleah Bluestein and Theodore and Karen Albenesius. The vote was basically the same as it was in October, when the Council approved the agreement: Chauncey Clark, Greg Hammond, Kaye Smith and Tim Reese voted yes, while Mayor Pat O’Neil and Bachman Smith said no. Sarah Church, who voted against the settlement last year, was not at the March 16 meeting.
The public comments at the beginning of the meeting were for the most part against the agreement, though Clark, Hammond, Kaye Smith and Reese did have their supporters.
Larry Kobrovsky said the amended settlement was “an attempt to run out the clock, to allow more cutting while you still have four people on the Council to do it,” while Scott Millimet called the Maritime Forest plan “flawed from the outset, to benefit a few at the expense of many.”
Gary Visser said the Maritime Forest provides natural protection against storms, pointing out that “what every island community desperately wants and needs, we intend to destroy.” Julie Lovell called the plan “ecological destruction that cannot be undone.”
Luke Lewis, on the other hand, thanked Clark, Hammond, Kaye Smith and Reese “for saving the residents from having to cut the entire accreted land down to 3 feet.”
He laid the blame for the current controversial situation on “the stop the cut, antisettlement folks who violated the terms of the deed for years and caused the town to lose the fight in the Supreme Court.” He added that those who oppose the agreement are “cloaking themselves in the righteousness of conservation and maybe saving some lives. I doubt that would ever happen.”
Cyndy Ewing was concerned about having only four days to read the amended agreement before the Council voted on it and said “our process is broken. Let’s hope it’s not FUBAR.” – a military acronym for “f—-d up beyond all recognition.”
Other speakers complained about the Council’s lack of transparency, a claim Reese denied.
“A lot of folks feel like we weren’t being transparent,” he said, asking attorney Derk Van Raalte to estimate how long he had been working on the case – the answer was 11 years. “We successfully mediated a lawsuit approved in October. Today we are simply looking at scaling back to be consistent with what the regulatory process will require.”
“It could have gone to trial, but the recommendation weas mediation,” he added. “We could not discuss what was going on in mediation. This is the best settlement we can have. I did not want this to go to trial. We’ve got to move this forward. I don’t want the chance of this thing falling apart and going to trial with it.”
According to Van Raalte, the plan originally approved in October was modified to address the concerns of the Corps of Engineers and OCRM. He said the amended agreement concerning the 147-acre Maritime Forest calls for substantially less tree and shrub removal, but Bachman Smith did not agree.
“This is a completely different agreement. I don’t see how it is less. It’s more. It’s far more egregious than what we walked out of mediation with,” he said.
“There is significantly less cutting than what the town approved back in October,” Hammond countered. “It’s a lighter touch.”
“A no vote doesn’t mean we’re not going to move forward with the settlement. It means we want to stick with the original settlement and see if that works,” he added. “The upcoming election won’t change anything. Nobody from the town is allowed to actively work against the settlement.”
On a somewhat related note, O’Neil announced during the meeting that Sullivan’s Island has achieved Tree City USA status for the fifth year in a row. The program is, according to its website, “a nationwide movement that provides the framework necessary for communities to manage and expand their public trees.”
The Council also unanimously approved a proclamation designating April 4 through April 11 in memory of the victims, survivors, rescuers and liberators of The Holocaust, proclaiming that “We, as citizens of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, should promote human dignity and confront hate whenever and wherever it occurs.”