MOUNT PLEASANT — In the old days, the shrimp boats tied off four and five abreast. People stopped in to buy shrimp right off the Shem Creek docks. The vista of trawlers with their sprawling nets and the Magwood shrimping family became Lowcountry icons.
Today that stretch of the creek is lined with columned houses. And the neighbors are pushing back against a plan to keep operating one of the last vestiges of those old days.
James Simmons’ plan to expand the dock and marina rental space and add a marina store at the old Magwood shrimp dock is being fought by a number of nearby residents, incongruously enough under the auspices of Save Shem Creek, a group formed partly to keep that shrimping legacy alive.
It’s an ugly mess dropped into the heart of the Lowcountry heritage, the heritage that created the community’s Blessing of the Fleet, the ceremonial start to the spring shrimping season. It takes place for the 28th year on Sunday at the town’s Waterfront Park.
The state is not likely to open the actual season until mid-May at the earliest, based on the crop and water temperatures.
Simmons bought the shrimp store, dock and dry stack from the Magwood family last year, after the family had struggled for years against rising costs and shrimp prices that didn’t keep pace with expenses. The stack, a shelf-like facility to store smaller recreational boats out of the water, had been installed by the Magwoods a few years earlier in an attempt to defray costs.
Wayne Magwood said the sale was forced when a loan was called. Relations with the newer residential neighbors had been testy over a steady stream of cars rolling in to buy shrimp.
The permitting for the dock and stack wasn’t in order when Simmons purchased the business, he said. He has been applying to the state to correct it.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed a permit amendment is under review and said their staff is actively working with the owner to address issues, including adequate restrooms, trash cans, spill kits and fueling only on high ground.
“Compliance and enforcement staff have also observed that a large amount of debris including old creosote pilings, dock debris, and pieces of concrete have been removed from the critical area at the site,” said spokesman Jim Beasley in a statement.
DHEC is considering permits for maintenance and repair work and issued a public notice on changes to the dock, drystack boat slips and parking, according to Beasley.
When Simmons’ work started, he began to get pressured verbally, with complaints and with permit challenges to the state, he said.
DHEC has been to the site nine times in the past eight months based on complaints, including an inspection Wednesday, Beasley said.
“Simmons Marine is located in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant,” reads a letter filed on behalf of neighbor Randy Friedman opposing the plans to add on to the old Magwood dock and a permit to use more dry stack boat slips.
“The residential neighborhood cannot accommodate the additional traffic associated by the more intense commercial use requested by Simmons Marine,” the letter says.
Simmons is flummoxed. “These people want to save Shem Creek? They’re not trying to save Shem Creek. They want to build homes. You’re not going to save Shem Creek, you’re going to have another creek lined by homes,” he said.
He supplies fuel, ice and equipment help to the remaining shrimpers in the creek, he said. “I’m still shrimping. I still buy shrimp from everybody and try to sell it.”
Shrimper Tommy Edwards, who docks nearby, agrees. “I have no problem. He’s helping us.”
Save Shem Creek is not advocating that this property, or any other commercial property, on Shem Creek should be converted to residential use, said James Bagwell, chairman of the group, on Friday. Save Shem Creek fully supports the shrimpers, he said.
His son, Will Bagwell, also working with Save Shem Creek, was contacted by The Post and Courier on Wednesday in an attempt to speak with concerned neighbors.
“Save Shem Creek’s initial concern was seeing a good amount of work being done in the creek and along the creek bank that apparently has not been permitted,” Will Bagwell said in a statement.
“(Save Shem Creek members) share the neighbors’ concerns that adding fueling operations and the sale of alcohol to this spot will just serve to further degrade the water quality of the creek and add unnecessary congestion on the creek if it becomes the spot for boats to stop in and refill their beer coolers,” he said.
“Since there is limited parking on-site, we know the neighbors have concerns that they could end up with another situation like The Boulevard with patrons parking all along the streets in their neighborhood,” he said. “We would applaud any effort by Mr. Simmons to aid the shrimping industry on Shem Creek. We also hope that any improvements to his site and services offered by his business will be properly permitted and approved by the Town and other involved agencies.”
The group is not aware of any plans to buy the Magwood property, Will Bagwell said. But Simmons said one neighbor told him they would keep after him until he sells.
“When I bought the property, I wanted to have a place to go, and someplace for retirement to have an income,” Simmons said, “and to continue selling shrimp.”
The former shrimping community creek has become a mix of upscale residences, waterfront restaurants and water sports businesses. Today, the creek is crowded with power boats, kayaks and paddleboards.
Meanwhile, shrimper after shrimper has given up the trade, driven out by the costs and catch difficulties.
The remaining captains and their boats are as weathered as the patchworked hull of the Magwoods’ Winds of Fortune shrimp boat still operating in the family.
Only a fourth of the boats operate today as did in the peak years two decades ago, and only a half-dozen or fewer are from Shem Creek.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.