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Op-Ed: Lawsuit Settlement For Management of The Accreted Land

By Susan Middaugh for Island Eye News

Town Council members who approved the lawsuit settlement on management of the Accreted Land and their supporters have characterized the court-approved plan as a beneficial compromise that will have a “light touch” on the land. Those who are vigorously opposing this settlement have characterized it as a recipe for de-forestation with the benefit accruing primarily to first row property owners. Both sides understand that cutting the trees are the key to lasting change in the character of the Accreted Land. Both sides also understand that the Town Council election on May 5, 2021, can change the 4-to-3 majority that has been driving the decision-making on the Accreted Land. 

Here is how you can evaluate these conflicting claims. Put a sixty-inch tape measure in your pocket and walk the beach paths through the accreted land between Station 16 and Station 28½. Remember that tree diameter (D) is easily measured by circumference divided by 3 (3.14 for the purist). Consult the included chart as you go, measure the circumference of a few sample trees, and see for yourself which trees will remain and how many will be cut down.  For example, in the chart, in the Transition Zone (TZ), all shrubs and trees will be cut except for Live Oaks and Magnolias that are 16” in diameter (50” circumference). Based on a 2015 tree survey, there are over 500 mature trees (6” D or larger) in the TZ and over 375 (75%) will be cut. Fewer than 125 (25%) will remain and many of these will be palmettos that are protected by state law.

Seaward of the Transition Zone, where most of the 190 acres of Accreted Land lies, the plan specifies three planning zones: Zone 1, Sta. 16 to 1715 Atlantic Ave; Zone 2, 1715 Atlantic Ave to SIES; and Zone 3, SIES to Sta 28½. The three zones differ primarily in the diameter of the trees that are to remain, and this is noted in the chart. For example, for Cedar, Pine and Hackberry Trees, all will be removed under 12” diameter in Zone 1, 16” in Zone 2, and 18” in Zone 3. Note: exempt from the settlement are SIES, the Lighthouse property, and Sta 22 to Sta 22½ Atlantic, the site of a past resort hotel with deed to the high tide line.

Consider the cumulative impact over the 50-year (renewable) span of the lawsuit settlement.  All trees smaller than 6” D will be cut, except for oaks in Zone 1. This means that all the smaller maritime tree species such as Hercules club that never reach this size will be gone. Also, there will be no replacement trees for any species except oaks and only in Zone 1. In addition, all the trees that do remain throughout the ACL may be limbed up for views.  What, then, is the planned long-term outcome of this settlement? An oak and palmetto park for Zone 1? Conversion to grasslands for Zones 2 and 3?

Finally, consider the inevitable collateral damage to the diverse maritime vegetation and to the fragile sandy soil from the mechanized removal of thousands of saplings and small trees, 50% of the myrtles and shrubs, and large numbers of mature trees. The plan calls for “naturalist approved seeding” that will need to compete with non-native invasive species that are adept at quickly filling voids.  Extensive removal of thirsty trees will increase localized ponding and flooding. The thriving maritime ecosystem that now provides home and nourishment to birds and other wildlife will be gone. And there will be far less impediment to storm surge and winds.

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