What Should SI Council Do with Voter Mandate?

(Written by Post and Courier Editorial Staff /. Published May 8, 2021)

Tuesday’s Sullivan’s Island election results struck a clear and powerful chord for conserving one of the most special parts of the town: its growing maritime forest. We hope even those islanders who voted for losing candidates come to see the wisdom of this outcome in the long run.

At a time when concern grows daily about how development is eroding our quality of life across the Charleston region, the reelection of Mayor Pat O’Neil by a more than 3-2 margin, along with the election of three new council candidates, promises a town government quite different than the one that voted suddenly last year to cut down more of the forest.

As we said as that cutting plan was being rushed through in October — an attempt to settle a years-long legal dispute brought by some homeowners whose ocean views were blocked by the forest — the plan was lousy not only because it would lead to more cutting than ever envisioned but also because the public did not have an adequate chance to speak up about it.

Well, voters certainly spoke Tuesday, quite loudly in fact, against those who approved the cutting (two of the four who voted “yes” lost; the other two weren’t on the ballot). And we believe the voters’ message was also an objection to the ham-handed process behind it, not purely the decision itself.

That said, the job facing the mayor and the new Town Council-elect is complicated, given that a settlement agreement on the forest already is in place. After they get sworn in next month, their first order of business should be to consult with their attorneys to figure out — and then publicly explain — what they can legally do (and not do) to chart a new, less destructive plan to cut in the forest. The permitting process might provide a window for further amendments. We see three main legal questions:

  • What leverage do the town and pro-forest voices still have as the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Army Corps of Engineers consider permits for any cutting plan?
  • Does the language of the settlement, which appears to bind future town councils forever, violate state law or the constitution? Sullivan’s Island resident and environmental attorney William Want thinks this question is worth exploring. “The settlement agreement has a clause which purports to prevent any changes in the cutting approved by the previous council,” he told us. “This seems so contrary to the public interest and democratic principles that a court may find it invalid.”
  • Should the town permit less cutting than the agreement calls for, in recognition of Tuesday’s vote? Such a step could be risky, inviting a resumption of a legal battle thought to be settled. But it also could result in a revised agreement if the pro-cutters lack the stomach to continue to fight in court, particularly after a record turnout of voters removed any questions about what the public really wants.

The level of passion and controversy over the Sullivan’s Island forest might surprise some because, as Mayor O’Neil has pointed out on many occasions, it’s a problem almost any beach community would love to have. Most are losing ground, literally. The southern end of Sullivan’s is a rare stretch of shorefront that’s gaining it. But the maritime forest is an unexpected gift, one valued by many for the beauty, the wildlife habitat and the storm protection it provides. Ultimately, those who govern Sullivan’s Island need to be mindful about stewarding it for all of us — not just for those who live on the island, and especially not just for those who happen to be blessed enough to afford a home right next to it.