By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
A wide range of issues are important to the residents of Sullivan’s Island, but, based on the somewhat contentious exchange among candidates at a recent online forum, the ultimate fate of the Maritime Forest remains at the top of the list of items with the potential to sway the results of the May 4 election.
At the April 13 forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area and The Island Eye News, seven candidates vying for three Council seats and the mayor’s position agreed – or at least agreed to disagree – on issues such as traffic, flooding, quality of life and paid parking. When the subject matter turned to the Maritime Forest, however, moderator Julie Hussey found it necessary to admonish three candidates for personally attacking one another.
“From here on out, I think calling out each other’s names is really not our best bet,” she said, obviously aiming her remarks at Council Member Tim Reese and two candidates who would like to replace him: Scott Millimet and Kevin Pennington.
The back and forth among the three candidates was instigated by a question about the mediated settlement between the town of Sullivan’s Island and property owners who were unhappy that the growth of the Maritime Forest blocked their ocean views. Reese, one of four Council members who voted to approve the agreement, pointed out that “previous Councils have had management plan after
management plan and did zero to compromise.”
“Our advice from the town’s attorney was to mediate and not take the risk of going to trial,” he said. “For many on the Council, their management plan is to do nothing, including the mayor. We settled it. It’s time to move on.”
Millimet, one of five candidates seeking three seats on the Council, disagreed. Citing an ad purchased by Billy Want in the April 9 issue of The Island Eye News, Millimet insisted that the town had the option to present its case in court without risking the probability that it would have to pay enormous damages to the plaintiffs. He added that the original land trust for the accreted land called for a natural area rather than for “a 3-foot vegetative hedge.”
“Several on the Council knew these facts and ignored them. Instead, they could have recused themselves from the vote, and, given the obvious conflict of interest, that might have been a good outcome,” he added.
Not long after, Pennington questioned the “hypocrisy” of opponents of the mediated settlement, including “people on this phone that paid to have trees cut out of their own property.”
“Mr. Millimet, can you answer me why you cut a tree down? I can. It’s public record. It’s public record that you yourself cut a tree down because it was aesthetically unappealing to you. Isn’t that odd that now we’re holier than thou about the forest?”
Millimet responded by explaining that he was granted a permit to cut down two diseased trees that were in danger of falling and damaging his house.
He said he replaced them by planting four new trees in his yard.
“I’m a big fan of trees,” he said.
Reese apparently was unconvinced by Millimet’s explanation.
“I’ve seen your request for that tree removal, and it said aesthetic purposes, by the way,” he remarked.
“People need to realize that this settlement is a settlement to a lawsuit. It is not the management plan for the accreted land. It is not a complete deforestation. It was a lawsuit settlement,” Reese added.
The other two Council candidates said they weren’t happy with the settlement.
“Clearly I’m not satisfied,” Gary Visser commented.
“You can tell this story any way you like, but, in the end, we made the wrong decision. I think we have some opportunities to reverse that, and I would support any of them.”
“The settlement is not what I would have done,” Justin Novak said. “We need to do a better job of protecting our natural areas and space and think long-term about how they benefit our quality of life on the island. We need to focus on making sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
The candidates in the mayor’s race, incumbent Pat O’Neil and current Council Member Chauncey Clark, disagreed on the settlement as well. O’Neil called it “a terrible outcome achieved through a very questionable process.”
“The plan still needs to go before regulatory agencies such as Coastal Resource Management and the Corps of Engineers,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be numerous opportunities for the public to provide input to those bodies as they consider whether to permit the work as it’s been most recently described. It baffles me that we would engage in something like this. It’s legally mandated deforestation. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Clark disagreed with the mayor’s definition of “deforestation,” insisting that the mediated agreement was necessary.
“It’s a compromise to get to a middle place. If we don’t do that, we’ll go back to court. People I’ve talked to are exhausted with the continuous fight,” Clark said.
“It’s torn the island in two. It’s time to settle and move.”
O’Neil and Clark did agree on several issues, such as the need for plans to alleviate flooding on the island and to deal with traffic issues caused by the ever-increasing number of people coming to the beach.
On the subject of paid parking on Sullivan’s Island, Clark said that issue has never been on the Council’s agenda and pointed out that the town needs help in shouldering the $850,000 a year it costs to accommodate visitors to the island.
“I hope the state will come through. It’s a state beach. They should help us pay to take care of their visitors,” Clark said.
“If they don’t, we’re going to have to figure another way that may include raising taxes. I think paid parking is the last variable we should look to, but it is not coming off my table.”
O’Neil said he is “very opposed to paid parking now or in the foreseeable future.”
“I think there’s other alternatives that we must pursue to try to get funding for some of the services that we provide,” he said. “A lot of people outside the island incorrectly assume that we are trying to keep them away. In my view, nothing could be farther from the truth.”
“Primarily, it runs against the feel of Sullivan’s Island,” he added. “This is not a place that people are accustomed to have to pay admission to, nor should they have to. Paid parking should be a last resort. I think we should look at every possibility before we would resort to something like that.”
Visser, Millimet and Novak all said they opposed the idea of paid parking on the island, while Pennington pointed out that the town should first invest in traffic management, parking improvements and beach path maintenance and “after that’s done we can decide if paid parking is a last but necessary evil.”
“It would be absolutely wonderful if the state would step up and pay for the things that we need to do. It’s not fair to increase taxes for the amount of folks who want to enjoy and come to this island,” Reese added.
O’Neil and Clark agreed – sort of – on the question of whether Council members should recuse themselves from voting on issues that affect their property values.
O’Neil said there are both legal and ethical issues involved and pointed out that there shouldn’t be a legal problem with Council members who live adjacent to the Maritime Forest voting on the mediated settlement.
However, he added: “People in government really need to ask themselves a hard question sometimes: What are my motives involved in this issue? Are my motives such that they would interfere with me voting both sides of an issue? Sometimes you are within the letter of the law and not in the spirit of good ethical practice.”
“If you take the accreted land, there’s actually three front beach owners and one around the corner,” Clark said. “Four Council members would have to recuse themselves from anything that has to do with the accreted land. That isn’t going to work. How do we have any governing going on if more than half of the Council is recusing themselves?”
To watch the entire forum, visit facebook.com/LWVCharleston.