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Ingram Dunes activist Damien Triouleyre looks onto the property on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Ingram Dunes is a 9.4-acre section of maritime forest surrounded by development and one of the last undeveloped areas of the city. Since 2016, a group has been working to preserve Ingram Dunes as a passive park and nature preserve. Randall Hill/Special to The Post and Courier

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH — It's hard to tell from the outside that there are any actual dunes inside Ingram Dunes. 

The property, located between Ninth and Tenth Avenues South near the heart of North Myrtle Beach, is thickly covered with pines, live oaks and wax myrtles along its edges.

But once inside this patch of maritime forest, visitors encounter gradual, upward sandy paths and steep drop-offs, some 25 feet down: It's a rare, remaining portion of an ancient dune system that once spread along the coast. 

Damien Triouleyre , one of the activists who has been trying to stop its development, sometimes refers to a spirit within the land, saying he was "shocked" the first time he felt it. 

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the dunes. The dunes have a power in themselves," Triouleyre said. "They’re just so magnificent and so unusual.”

Generations of residents in this northern section of the Grand Strand have felt that same power, retreating to the land for a patch of much-needed shade or in some cases as a literal sandbox for childhood games. 

But the owner of Ingram Dunes started the process to put 31 homes on the land in late 2016, and since then, Triouleyre and others have taken several tacks to try to protect the land. They have contested environmental permits, a method handicapped by a recent state law limiting the protest period. They've appealed directly to the owner. And now they're trying to raise money for the city to buy the land outright.

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Damien Triouleyre has been working with a group seeking to preserve Ingram Dunes in perpetuity as a passive park and nature preserve in North Myrtle Beach. Randall Hill/Special to The Post and Courier

Three years later, their fight is still alive in part because of the persistence of Triouleyre and others. The city also has stepped up as the main negotiator with the Ingram family, which has owned the property for decades.

North Myrtle Beach pledged $500,000 to the effort and wrote a grant application that led to $510,000 from the S.C. Conservation Bank.

The owners' willingness to pause their development process and engage has helped keep conservation hopes alive, North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling said. 

Protecting Ingram Dunes has never seemed more possible, but there's still a long road ahead if the land is to become a public park.

Ingram Beach to Ingram Dunes

Many activists involved with trying to conserve the property, including Triouleyre and Jane Vernon, own property close by. They said their effort isn't just run-of-the-mill pushback against backyard development.

They hope to create a public asset that also highlights the area's sometimes-forgotten natural splendor, such as the marsh walk in nearby Cherry Grove. That effort inspired the creation of North Myrtle Beach's first official group aimed at saving natural and man-made history, said Susan Platt, president of the North Myrtle Beach Historic Preservation Society.

"This is preserving the natural landscape," Vernon said. "This is the last of what was here before us."

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Jane Vernon looks out a window of her family vacation home that borders the Ingram Dunes on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As a child, the 9.4-acre property was "a place to let fantasies run wild," Vernon said. Since 2016, a group has been working to preserve Ingram Dunes as a passive park and nature preserve. Randall Hill/Special to The Post and Courier

In the 1930s, Charles Ingram, who founded a lumber company that his family still operates today near Florence, bought hundreds of acres in what is now North Myrtle Beach. Maps from that time marked the area as "Ingram Beach," Vernon said. 

Over time, much of his land was sold off and developed. But 9.4 acres, just three blocks from the ocean, remained. Both locals and vacationers began treating the private property essentially as a public park.

Groups of neighborhood children battled for territory, and even a few local officials have early memories of time spent there. Councilman Hank Thomas said Ingram Dunes wasn't the only remaining plot of the the dune system when he was a kid, but it was preferable to another, smaller patch of raw land to the south that neighborhood kids called "Baboon Mountains."

Vernon, who was born in the 1950s, said that the dunes were far less forested in her childhood. She and her friends sometimes called it "Saudi Arabia" and had to sprint through its scorching sand on summer afternoons, stopping in isolated thickets of trees that acquired their own nicknames. "Cedar paradise" was closest to her vacation home.

"It was just a place to let fantasies run wild," Vernon said.

It was only as she grew older and saw the forest retake the property that she understood why it had been so open in her youth: Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm that ripped through the Grand Strand in 1954, likely wiped most of the foliage out. 

But today, Ingram Dunes is most valued as a green oasis. 

The right price

Earlier this month, the property wasn't quite as pristine as it was last summer. Since then, the owners ran a rotary cutter through the underbrush and began thinning out some of the larger pines. There are signs everywhere of impending development: grand trees marked in orange spray paint and piles of plastic mesh on the ground.

There also was a spent fire scattered with broken beer bottles, remnants of what Triouleyre and Vernon call "stealth campers," squatters who are difficult to police since the land is not a public park.  

Around the time of the August cutting, "No trespassing" signs were posted on the grounds for the first time since anybody could remember. Triouleyre was even cited at one point for trespassing. 

Since then, the signs have mysteriously disappeared. Fewer people walk through today, but the traffic hasn't completely stopped. 

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Damien Triouleyre goes over a map of the Ingram Dunes on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Ingram Dunes is a 9.4-acre section of maritime forest surrounded by development and one of the last undeveloped areas of the city. Since 2016, a group has been working to purchase and preserve Ingram Dunes in perpetuity as a passive park and nature preserve. Randall Hill/Special to The Post and Courier

It's unclear how members of the Ingram family feel about the property's future, but city officials and activists say the family is open to selling for the right price. A representative of the owners and the real estate agent handling the land did not return several phone calls for this story. 

Every step toward building puts new pressure on activists and on the city. Their main challenge is raising enough money to acquire the land. The family has pegged the value at $3.1 million in its recent appraisal, but the city of North Myrtle Beach's appraisal puts the value at $1.9 million.

The current offer, Mayor Marilyn Hatley said, is just $1.05 million, all that's been raised so far. Dowling said the city has looked extensively for other federal and state grants, but it hasn't found anything beyond the Conservation Bank grant, which must be spent by June. The city could seek an extension. 

"If you’re gong to write a check, now is the time to send it in," Dowling said. "If the sale doesn't go through, then everybody gets their money back."

Preservationists are also holding an April 27 benefit to raise funds. For Triouleyre, the alternative — seeing the land cleared and leveled — is not an option.

“It’s like your child is in intensive care or has cancer. You envision them living. That’s what you do, you envision them thriving," he said. "And that’s what you do, you envision this place thriving and living.”

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

Chloe Johnson covers the coastal environment and climate change for the Post and Courier. She's always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.