Balancing voice in environmental debate
SULLIVAN'S ISLAND -- If you could throw a cast net, you could keep yourself in seafood year-round.
That's how it was during the summers Ellison Smith IV spent growing up at Murrells Inlet. That's how it was when he moved to a secluded little cottage on the beach on a verdant Sullivan's Island in the 1970s.
Nobody sodded a lawn. In the spring the wildflowers came out all across the island, the phlox, the black-eyed Susan. You could forage for wild asparagus.
This was the life -- "a slice of heaven," his wife, Martha, agreed.
His Chesapeake Bay retrievers had the run of the beach. Every night after work, he stepped from his cottage up onto the rocks that anchored the north end of the Charleston jetties and picked his way down to the surf to cast for sheepshead, bass, flounder and whiting.
Maybe the most incongruous thing about the life has been his work. Smith is an environmental attorney, a man who forged a reputation as one of the lawyers of choice for developers struggling with regulatory agencies.
He represented Park Island developers in a fight to build a bridge to the marsh island in the Wando River in
Mount Pleasant, a battle that environmentalists said, if they had lost, would have stripped protection from the thousands of small, wooded crowns of inland coastal waters.
He represented Spectre developers in a fight to fill 37 acres of isolated wetlands in Georgetown County, a battle that environmentalists said if they had lost, could have stripped protection from some 300,000 acres of freshwater wetlands in the state, habitats for rare plants, natural run-off filters to protect water quality.
It seems every time there has been a pivotal struggle between private property rights and coastal protection, Smith has been in the ring.
As much as championed conservationists like Dana Beach, of the Coastal Conservation League, or Jimmy Chandler, the dogged S.C. Environmental Law Project attorney who died last week, Smith has been a force in shaping the coast today.
Yet he's a man about whom Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League said recently, "We always thought his heart was in the right place."
Smith, 67, is a son of a Columbia labor law attorney, a grandson of the late Ellison "Cotton Ed" Smith, the mid-20th-century South Carolina congressman who made his name with the declaration, "Cotton is king and white is supreme."
Smith chuckles a little when asked what he thinks about his grandfather. He calls him a person of his time who did a lot for small farmers, his real social passion.
"Clearly he was a racist, but that's how he got elected. I have mixed emotions about it. I will say that at his funeral all of the pallbearers were black," he said -- and none of them was constrained to do it.
When Smith got out of the University of South Carolina law school, he began to practice, looked at himself in the mirror one day and realized that if he didn't get out of town he would become another Columbia country-club attorney.
He took a Courthouse Square job in Charleston, bought a house on Logan Street and became another walk-to-work Broad Street attorney. One day he cleared out a store room, piled the debris at the curb and neighbors began asking, "What's going on? Are you moving?"
"Too damned confining," he said. He bought the Sullivan's Island cottage. He's spent his life fishing, hunting and writing. He recently published "Free As A Fish," an Amazon.com, coming-of-age novel about growing up in Murrells Inlet.
About it, he said, "It describes a place that no longer exists, a snapshot of coastal South Carolina in the early '60s, and people who lived and made their living from the water."
That coast doesn't exist anymore. Smith's secluded beach cottage is in a wooded enclave, but surrounded by larger houses. The beach has accreted, leaving him a few blocks inland, and the crow's nest view of the ocean has been blocked by a beachfront mansion.
The huge slabs of jetty anchor rock in his yard look strangely out of place.
What happened was Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, he said. People replaced their destroyed homes with larger homes. Then the island became a destination, and people began building homes that were "tremendous testaments to their own egos," so much larger than needed, the owners are left to wander the space "like ghosts in a bucket," he said.
Then came the rules. Nowadays his Chesapeake doesn't run free.
The town is gone where the pharmacy doubled as a liquor store, so you could "fill your prescription and get something to wash it down with."
The pharmacy, Bert's Bear and Mama's Tea Room made up the business district that is now a bustle of trendy restaurants on a street swarmed by beachgoers on the weekends. The area keeps growing, he said, "but there's only a finite amount of beach."
'Squeak in the closet'
On a recent afternoon, Smith is decked out in an outdoorsman shirt and torn blue jeans. He's barefoot. He doesn't look like a high-priced attorney, he's told. "I'm not," he said. He eases back on a couch in a living room of wildlife prints, a trophy fish hanging, a fox hanging from the mantle.
As a lawyer, his job is to represent his client, he said, although he has told some of them, "You have the absolute right to make the wrong decision." He's partly responsible for the way the coast has developed, he acknowledged.
"In hindsight, I might not have represented some of the clients I represented, knowing what I now know. On the other side of the coin, I don't think I ever asked a regulatory agency for a permit I didn't think the client legally deserved," he said.
The hearings were contentious, and caused people a lot of consternation, "but from a legal standpoint, I thought my people were entitled to it."
He admires Chandler's work, Beach's work. He's been a balancing voice in the environmental debate.
"If you only have one voice, it becomes ascendent. I've become a squeak in the closet, trying to balance it out," he said. But, he said, "I regret the change (along the coast). We have really screwed this up."
What to do about it now is a true dilemma, he said. Of the state coastal regulatory goal of beach retreat -- moving structures back from the dunes -- "I don't think will ever happen. There's just too much at stake economically."
It's not a small thing that his cottage withstood Hugo despite waist-high water through the raised first floor, while his neighbor's ended up in pieces against his oak trees.
What it might take to change development of the coast is another catastrophic storm, he said, "something that makes people look at what they are truly prepared to risk."