Summary judgement blocks settlement agreement that would have severely cut back forest

In a blockbuster victory for the environment, a Circuit Court Judge blocked the enforcement of a settlement agreement on Sullivan’s Island that would have allowed the destruction of the Island’s unique Maritime Forest.

Circuit Court Judge Jennifer McCoy has ruled in favor of the Town of Sullivan’s Island’s request to invalidate the settlement agreement entered into by the previous Town Council. The Court called the agreement “invalid and unenforceable” because it attempted to bind the hands of future town councils and gave power in perpetuity to a small group of private citizens to veto efforts of future Town Councils wanting to manage the Maritime Forest in the public’s best interest. Judge McCoy also ruled against the Defendants’ counterclaims.

“This ruling (CLICK HERE TO READ) is a validation of everything Sullivan’s Island for All has fought for since this unlawful agreement was passed in a hastily called Zoom meeting by a former Town Council at the height of the pandemic,” said Sullivan’s Island for All President Karen Byko. “Anyone who read the settlement could immediately see that it was a one-sided attempt to destroy the forest that protects all of us from storm surge and hurricanes, so a few islanders could have better ocean views.”

In a strong repudiation of the Settlement Agreement, the judge opined that it “imposes affirmative, ongoing, and perpetual obligations, circumvents the Town’s zoning procedures, supplants the Town’s duly enacted zoning ordinances, and bargains away the authority and discretion of future town councils to act in the public interest.”

If implemented, the Settlement Agreement would have overridden the Town Council’s ability to manage the Maritime Forest, the centerpiece of the Town’s climate resiliency plan to protect residents from dangerous hurricane storm surge penetrating inland and the effects of sea level rise, a public policy consideration that the Court felt was particularly important for a barrier island, such as Sullivan’s.

The Settlement Agreement, opposed by the majority of islanders, would have removed and cut significant areas of vegetation in the 195-acre Maritime Forest and negatively impacted stormwater runoff, according to a letter sent to the Town by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neil called the Settlement Agreement an attempt at “legalized deforestation.”

The Court ruled, “the Town may not be restricted from adopting in the future any regulations concerning the Accreted Land [Maritime Forest] or taking any other action it deems appropriate for public safety and general welfare. It is a continuing power which may be exercised as often as required in the public interest and must always remain fluid.”

“This is a great outcome for residents of the Town, our state and our country,” Byko said. “The Maritime Forest is a national treasure. It is not only home to wildlife who find refuge there, but it is key to curbing the effects of global climate change. We are hopeful that the parties who have sued the Town for more than a decade will finally put this issue to bed and join with us to preserve the Maritime Forest for the benefit and enjoyment of all.”