SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — Ocean views, a breeze and the smell of salt air are missing these days for front beach residents Nancy and David Fortiere.
Instead, a town-owned maritime forest separates them from the aesthetic benefits of seaside living near the lighthouse.
“It’s horrible,” she said.
Watching the moon rise over the ocean has become a thing of the past, too, because it requires a trek through overgrown brush where coyotes have been spotted, she said.
“We just don’t have what we did,” the longtime island resident said.
Homeowners who share their concerns have filed suit against the town asking a court for more freedom to trim back the forest, which they say is home to varmints as well as a potential hiding place for criminals. They want the island government to pay them damages for lost home value they blame on scraggly, unkempt woodlands between them and the shoreline.
Plaintiffs Nathan and Ettaleah Bluestein and Karen and Theodore Albenesius III want to trim to 3 feet above ground the brush and trees on town property that abuts their seaward-facing front yards.
“If the suit is successful, we will all benefit,” David Fortiere said.
Robert Hood Sr., an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the suit aims to preserve the value of their property, which has been significantly reduced by the loss of ocean views.
“I think it will make it a much safer place to live,” Hood said.
The suit states that the plaintiffs’ properties have been reduced in fair market value by at least $1 million to $1.5 million each.
The owners of about 118 lots on the island have endorsed the legal action. Of those, 64 are not on the front row of houses closest to the Atlantic Ocean, the suit says in a footnote.
Animals living in the maritime forest have attacked people and pets. Criminals can hide there, says another suit footnote.
Nathan Bluestein said he worries about the safety of his grandchildren because of coyotes that appear at dusk.
Once plentiful rabbits and squirrels have disappeared in recent weeks. “There are a lot of cats missing,” he said.
Phone messages were left for the Albenesiuses seeking comment on the suit.
The maritime forest is on more than 100 acres of land built up over the years because of offshore north-to-south sand flow blocked by the Charleston Harbor jetties.
The woods have grown up in the past 25 years, said Nancy Fortiere, who thinks the plants were brought to the island by hurricane winds and birds.
The disheartening situation prompts the couple to turn their front porch chairs to face the house so they don’t look at the forest that blocks their view of the sea, she said.
The unmanicured woods is habitat for mosquitoes, raccoons, snakes, rats, spiders and coyotes, according to an amended version of the suit filed in December. It is the latest legal action on behalf of the plaintiffs in the four-year battle.
In response, the town filed court papers demanding a jury trial and denying that its actions have infringed upon the rights of property owners.
Mayor Pro-Tem Jerry Kaynard declined comment on whether he opposed loosening rules that govern cutting of trees and brush in the maritime forest.
“It’s a question of what the ordinance allows,” he said. “All of that is under consideration for some modification in the future.”
The ordinance allows trimming down to 5 feet high Southern Waxmyrtle, Eastern Baccharis and Popcorn trees from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28, according to the town website.
Because of growing complaints about coyotes that are believed to live in the forest, the town is looking at options such as trapping or shooting the animals. Trapping would require euthanization because the animals can’t be relocated, he said.
Kaynard said an ex-Navy SEAL contacted him with a proposal to hunt nuisance coyotes after dark using night-vision goggles.
The town manages the forest under an agreement with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, intended to ensure that future town councils do not change, weaken or eliminate protections for the land, according to court documents.
The suit alleges that the town is required to keep the forest looking the same way it did in the early 1990s. And residents are allowed to prune, cut and trim trees and bushes to a height not more than 3 feet above ground, it says.
In recent years, enforcement of the forest management rules led to a $6,000 fine for a resident who trimmed wax myrtles in the dunes near his residence.
The state Department of Natural Resources has said that the forested area of the beach offers protection for nesting and hatching sea turtles, provides habitat for nesting and migrating land birds and supports more than 125 plant species.
Dave Fortiere of Sullivan’s Island walks along the path he is able to keep trimmed from his home to the beach through the maritime forest. Though not a part of the lawsuit, Fortiere agrees with the families who are suing the town×