The Politics Behind the Decision to Cut

There is a tale of two beaches on the same island, four blocks apart. On Sullivan’s Island, at high tide, ocean waves wash beneath the homes at Station 30, damaging foundations and destroying yards, while four blocks away at Station 27, homes with expansive lawns sit securely behind a series of dunes that form the foundation of a fledgling maritime forest.

The greatest documented threat to Sullivan’s Island is hurricanes. In fact, the island’s management plan states that the island “is vulnerable to storm surge flooding and wave damage because of its direct exposure to the open coast” and “storm surge and waves present the most probable natural hazard risk to the island.”

Ignoring Climate Change

Climate change and documented sea level rise exacerbate this threat and mean that defending the island from storms should be Town Council’s primary responsibility.

Yet, inconceivably, in a swift, stunning and secretive action, a majority of Town Council recently decided to institute what the mayor, who voted no, called the “legally mandated deforestation” of this protective natural barrier.

Cutting in the young maritime forest will affect at least 63% of the front of the island, the part most exposed to storm surge. This vote circumvented the town’s previously adopted Accreted Land Management Plan, its regular ordinance process and the opportunity for public input.

The aggressive destruction of trees and vegetation this vote allows will occur on public land protected since 1991 by a deed with the Lowcountry Land Trust.

The Lawsuit for “Better Views”

Why is this happening? Because 10 years ago, two couples who owned front beach properties hired a front beach property-owning attorney, and together they sued the town to clear the vegetation in the accreted land. The reasons given were for views from their homes and to maintain their property values.

Of the 1,000 homes on Sullivan’s Island, fewer than 9% are directly affected by the maritime forest, while the forest protects the whole island in a storm.

Of the four council members who voted to end the lawsuit and allow cutting through a confidential, mediated settlement agreement, three live on the front beach. Two of them directly benefit from their vote. The vote was taken during a morning Zoom call, on a workday, during a pandemic, with the public given less than 72 hours to react.

This vote was described as the most consequential vote any council member would take regardless of the number of years they serve on Town Council. It is likely the most significant vote taken on Sullivan’s Island in the past 30 years.

Four Councilmembers Behind Cutting Ignore Outcry

Despite the island-wide, generational implications of this vote, some council members brush it off as if it were nothing, describing what lies ahead as only “the lightest touch” that “mirrors” the Accreted Land Management Plan adopted by Town Council in 2011.

Such a deceptive description of the written terms makes one wonder if these council members actually read the settlement agreement before they voted for it.

This agreement goes far beyond any management plan ever considered by the town. As one citizen commented, this is capitulation, not compromise.

A mature maritime forest, the ultimate goal for stability on a barrier island, requires roughly a century to develop.

The town’s now-former management plan recognized the storm protection value of maritime trees and shrubs.

It stated: “vegetation acts as an energy dissipater, reducing wave heights. In general, denser and higher vegetation cover will reduce wave heights and potential wave damages along interior areas.”

Higher, denser vegetation offers the greatest storm surge protection. This is accepted coastal science.

All Residents Now at Risk From Next Big Storm

With this vote, four members of Town Council will stop the forest maturation process in its tracks, leaving the whole island at risk in the next major storm.

Nature is dynamic. Without the trees, bushes and vegetation to trap and stabilize the sand, will the land begin to erode?

Erosion threatens every other beach community in South Carolina and most on the East Coast.

The legacy this vote leaves is one of distrust, division and deception. It is a devastating, destructive example of leadership for Sullivan’s Island.

Authors: Penn Hagood is a former member of Sullivan’s Island Town Council. Former DRB member Cyndy Ewing and former council members Susan Middaugh and Rita Langley also contributed to this commentary.