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Sullivan’s Island Town Council May Change Public Comment Etiquette

By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News

Sullivan’s Island’s governing body apparently will consider establishing guidelines concerning when and how citizens will be able to voice their opinions at town council meetings. Council members directed the Administration Committee, chaired by Justin Novak, to come up with recommendations during their regularly scheduled Oct. 26 meeting, more than half of which was taken up by comments from local residents. Almost all of them showed up to speak about the mediated settlement that was aimed at ending the long-running legal battle between the town and homeowners who live near the Maritime Forest. Some favored the agreement – approved in October 2020 and again in March of this year by members of the previous Council – while others continued a theme established at council meetings Sept. 21, Sept. 29 and Oct. 12 by encouraging council members to reconsider the settlement. The council voted Oct. 12 to hire attorney William W. Wilkins of the law firm Nexsen Pruet to determine if the town can alter the terms of the agreement, which permits the removal of trees and other vegetation from the Maritime Forest. At the Oct. 26 meeting, Council Member Greg Hammond criticized the council’s transparency and its efforts to inform local residents about what would be discussed at the previous three meetings. “The matter was not on the town agenda at the last council meeting,” he said. “There would be no way for anybody to know that that would be the forum for public comment on hiring an outside counsel unless somebody informed them that a bunch of people were going to come and comment, during which it was voted that we seek to retain independent counsel. Then we held another special meeting of council where we had no public comment, where it was voted to choose such counsel. That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I think we owe it to the people of this town to have a bit of a more clear policy on allowing public comment on a matter that’s as divisive as this one.” Mayor Pat O’Neil agreed that “I can certainly see some advantages to Council, after discussion, adopting some procedures about when do we allow public comment and when do we not.” Council member Kaye Smith added that the council received more than 30 letters concerning the Maritime Forest and that the town needs to find a way to make such communication a part of the public record. Unlike at previous meetings, local residents spoke both for and against the mediated settlement. Larry Kobrovsky pointed out that the town’s May 4 election, when three council seats and mayor’s position went to opponents of the settlement, was a clear mandate from residents of the island. 

“The vote was the biggest landslide in our island’s history. The mandate was overwhelming,” he said. 

Michael Bourland disagreed, calling the settlement “the best possible compromise.” “Can you not take yes for an answer?” he asked the council. “Do you enjoy daily life filled with bitterness among neighbors? Do you thrive on wasting taxpayers’ money and resources and exposing the town to extremely damaging lawsuits, only to end up in a worse place?” Two other residents spoke in favor of the settlement. Kevin Pennington called the current controversy “a recipe for further lawsuits to be filed against the town, while Steven Brewster said “seeking to overturn the settlement has its consequences.” “The outcome could end up being worse for the town, the taxpayers and the supporters of the Maritime Forest,” Brewster said. “Is that a prudent risk to take?” Raye Ann Osborne was equally critical of the recent decisions made by the council, pointing out that the town will be spending money for a judicial review that could lead to additional lawsuits. “Although not entirely unexpected, it is nevertheless disappointing, and I am left with questions concerning lost trust and the honor of one’s word,” she said. The most scathing indictment of the current council’s action – and those who want the council to take another look at the settlement – came from Luke Lewis. “The anti-settlement folks on the island would have us believe that Front Beach homeowners are greedy, selfish tree-cutters who could care less about the environment or the well-being of the island,” he stated. “The truth is, this entire conflict is about broken promises. Thirty years ago, after Hugo, the people on the Front Beach were the forerunners. They’re the ones who created the accreted land. And they were promised they would have views and breezes forever. And there’s people here who want to break the promise and create a myth that that forest is going to save us from another Hugo. If you believe that, get your head out of the sand.” On the other side of the issue, Courtney Somers said the town should have the right to seek a second opinion concerning the settlement. “It’s very clear that the majority of the residents were not satisfied with the results of the mediated settlement,” she said. “It seems logical to get a second opinion about the legality of the settlement.” Cyndi Ewing pointed out that “we paid $100,000 for a consulting report that tells us that our biggest risks are hurricanes, storm surge, flooding and sea level rise.” “Clearly the lawsuit settlement is not intended to manage our real risks, and it must be overturned,” she said. Karen Byko agreed that the settlement calls for the removal of thousands of trees and shrubs, and “despite repeated requests for how much this will cost taxpayers, the town has yet to provide any estimate.” 

She added: “But beyond the cost to perform the work itself, we are removing the very vegetation that protects us from dangerous storm surge penetrating inland and wiping out our private homes and public infrastructure. How much will it cost taxpayers to rebuild after the next Hugo because we destroyed the centerpiece of our resiliency plan?” 

In other action at their Oct. 26 meeting, the Sullivan’s Island Town Council: 

• Unanimously passed a resolution expressing appreciation to Steve Herlong, who has served on the Design Review Board since 2004; 

• Approved on third and final reading Ordinance 2021-13, which makes it illegal to leave a dog or other animal confined in a vehicle “whereby physical injury to or death of the dog or animal is likely to result;” 

• Amended the town’s zoning ordinance to permit short-term parking lots in the town commercial district.

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