By Zach Giroux for The Island Eye News
A decade-long legal dispute concerning the maritime forest on Sullivan’s Island has reached a resolution. A 10-year battle between beachfront homeowners and the town apparently came to an end Friday morning, when the Town Council rendered a 4-3 vote in favor of accepting a settlement in the case of Bluestein et al. v. Town of Sullivan’s Island et al. that approves increased cutting in the forested area. The decision was reached after deliberation inside and outside of courtrooms since 2010.
The town’s reasoning for expanded thinning pertains to protection against forest fires, eradicating mosquitoes and aesthetics. A noteworthy nonenvironmental concern for residents who live oceanfront was removing vegetation that obscured their view of the ocean.
More than 70% of the citizens who commented during the Council meeting stated their opposition to the settlement, citing that vegetation is beneficial for protection against storm surge and flooding during natural disasters such as hurricanes.
Several citizens also called into question that Council members who are oceanfront homeowners should recuse themselves from the vote to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Council Member Sarah Church said she would recuse herself if the other two Council members who live on the beach followed suit. She said she didn’t think that would happen, and she was correct.
Additionally, Church presented a motion to table the vote and make it into the form of a binding referendum for the upcoming November election. The town’s attorney indicated such action was not feasible at this time.
After an hour-and-a-half of commentary from residents and nonresidents, Mayor Pat O’Neil made a motion to postpone the vote until next month’s Council meeting on Nov. 17. The measure failed despite support from Church and Council Member Bachman Smith. It was opposed by Council Members Chauncey Clark, Tim Reese, Kaye Smith and Greg Hammond.
O’Neil called the settlement a “legally mandated deforestation.” He also proposed to have all Council members’ signatures and their vote included on the signed resolution. This, too, was rejected by Clark, Hammond, Reese and Kaye Smith.
The approved agreement permits the following: clear-cutting all vegetation within 4 feet of a town-owned beach path; cutting all vegetation in a 100-foot strip next to residences, with the exception of mature palmettos, live oaks and magnolias; and limbing mature trees and removing smaller trees, including cedars, pines and hackberries.
The town is responsible only for the cutting costs in the transition zone. Private landowners are expected to fund maintenance to other sections of the forest.