By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
Was Sullivan’s Island’s May 4 election all about the Maritime Forest? Did voters go to the polls in record numbers to cast their ballots for or against the mediated agreement between the town and homeowners that apparently settled a decades-old debate about whether to cut trees and remove brush on the accreted land? Not really, according to three newlyelected Council members and incumbent Mayor Pat O’Neil. With 61.3% of the island’s registered voters participating, O’Neil defeated sitting Council Member Chauncey Clark, 685 to 426, while Justin Novak, Gary Visser and Scott Millimet, all political newcomers, finished with 725, 693 and 690 votes, respectively, to claim spots on the Council. Tim Reese, who supported the mediated agreement as a member of the Council, garnered 420 votes, while Kevin Pennington finished with 410. The four winning candidates agreed that the Maritime Forest itself was not the major reason they were victorious.
Instead, they cited the process that led to the settlement with property owners as the deciding factor.
“What I heard from people was that what was done was bad, but the way it was done was worse,” O’Neil commented. “Ramming it through by a majority of Council is what people were most upset about.”
Clark, who supported the settlement, disagreed. “The accreted land issue loomed over this election despite the fact that it is a settled issue,” he said. “I liken it to the school – totally divisive also, and, now that it’s here, everyone wonders what the big deal was.” “I think there was a whole lot of misinformation out there regarding paid parking and the accreted land that influenced how people voted,” Clark added. “That being said, it is what it is.” Visser, Novak and Millimet agreed with O’Neil that the major issue in the election was that local residents felt they were left out of the decision to settle the Maritime Forest lawsuit. “The manner in which the issue was handled motivated people to get involved in the process because they believed that their concerns were not being given due consideration by Town Council,” Novak said. “We asked the voters to come out and get actively engaged in the process and express their vision of what the island and our community should be. They wanted to protect the integrity and charm of the island.” Millimet said “I think people wanted to be part of the process in managing the direction of this island and not Council members determining which way it went without input from residents,” while Visser noted that “knowing what the citizens want is never a bad idea.” “That’s not how this was done as regards to the accreted land,” he said. “Clearly, they were unhappy with not having been consulted.” When they were contacted by The Island Eye News, both Reese and Pennington chose not to comment.
Though he admitted that the mediated agreement forbids the Council from actively trying to amend the settlement, Millimet said changes are still possible because the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still must weigh in concerning what can and cannot be done in the Maritime Forest. The Council will be dealing with many other issues in the next few years. Paid parking on the island is off the table, according to O’Neil and Novak, but Millimet pointed out that such a plan is still possible. Stormwater projects are an expensive necessity, and the mayor noted that the South Carolina Department of Transportation owns the right of way along most of the island’s roads – and that SCDOT doesn’t have the money to make improvements.
“The town has no choice but to step up,” he said. “An application is being reviewed by FEMA to pay for an islandwide engineering study of our storm water status. We could prioritize different projects that need to be done and apply for grants to take that on.” He added that the town will work with other beach communities to garner financial support from the state and county “to help pay to accommodate the large number of beach visitors we have.” Visser and Millimet pointed out that the town also needs to address the issue of preserving the historical character of the island.
Clark, who served on the Council for eight years, said resilience, flooding and traffic must be addressed by the new Council. “The candidates who won were duly elected. I wish them well,” he said. “Now, with my newfound freedom, I will go on and enjoy the island that I love, knowing I gave it my all and took the high road at every turn. It’s been an honor to serve Sullivan’s Island.”
The results of the election were certified by the Sullivan’s Island Municipal Elections Commission, chaired by Robie Scott. At its May 6 meeting, the Commission accepted six of nine provisional ballots. Another 800 people voted on election day, while 306 used absentee ballots. O’Neil required 556 votes to win without a runoff, while the Council members needed 495. The new members will be installed at the Council’s June meeting.