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Incumbent Mayor Patrick O'Neil wins Sullivan's Island re-election; record-breaking turnout

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SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — Incumbent Mayor Patrick O'Neil will see another term in office after a tense contest on this barrier island that centered on the beach community's maritime forest. 

"I think it's pretty clear (voters) want us to take a different direction from the last two years," O'Neil said. He has been mayor since 2015 and was on Town Council for more than a decade before that.

He's also been on the losing side of several controversial 4 to 3 votes on the island's Town Council in recent years. 

O'Neil received about 62 percent of the vote, besting lone opponent Chauncey Clark, who won 38 percent, according to unofficial returns.

The turnout of more than 1,100 was record-smashing for the island, which usually sees a small proportion of voters participate in its springtime, off-year contests for town government. The official vote will be certified Thursday.

Clark was a member of Town Council for the past eight years, but will now leave public office. 

"I'm taking retirement well," Clark said. "I work really hard, until I walk out tall." 

On Town Council, Scott Millimet, Justin Novak and Gary Visser all won enough votes to secure the three open seats. Incumbent Tim Reese and Kevin Pennington fell short of the threshold. 

All four wins spelled success for conservationists who had urged a change in town government after the council approved more cutting in the maritime forest that sprawls between the beach and high-dollar homes on the south half of the island. The vote settled a decade-long lawsuit but also approved more plant removal than Sullivan's Island had contemplated since the zone was put into a trust in the 1990s. 

The land has been at issue for decades, with some arguing it should largely be left alone and others saying it should be thinned to allow for breezes and reduce fire risk. Reese and Clark voted for the settlement and cutting plan; O'Neil voted against it.

Where the candidates fell on that decision became a proxy for some voters on whether the island would retain its neighborly atmosphere.

Candidates who disapproved of the forest plan also largely spoke against installing paid parking on the island, for example, and spoke about improving transparency in town government. 

"We have our island back, and it is all for all, not some for all," resident Pat Votava said. "The numbers (of the vote) actually say what matters to people on this island."

The town remains legally bound to the forest thinning settlement and elected officials are barred from working to sabotage it. But the newly installed government will manage the tree-cutting that will result and disputes that may arise during permitting with state and federal agencies.

The decisive victory for O'Neil and the three Town Council candidates he supported may also point to the betrayal some felt in the town after the settlement was approved.

The legal negotiations were conducted in private, as is typical of civil mediation, and presented to the public only a few days before the vote to approve the settlement. 

It's clear the issue proved strong motivation for the small community. The total turnout was 1,106, including 346 absentee ballots cast in advance. That's about half the island's entire population, or roughly 60 percent of registered voters here.

Many of the early voters — technically absentee voters, cast ballots in person when the county brought a mobile polling place to the island. 

By contrast, a contest for three council seats in 2019 had roughly 40 percent turnout. The last time the mayor's seat was up to voters in 2017, there was a roughly 38 percent turnout, though O'Neil ran that year unopposed. 

Resident Larry Kobrovsky, one of the most rabid opponents of the forest thinning plan, said the win should send a signal to conservationists across the Lowcountry. 

"You can fight to save your communities from overdevelopment, and fight to save your greenspaces," Kobrovsky said. 

One thing that most voters seem to agree upon is that Sullivan's Island is a great place to live and a small community where people know one another.

"At the end of the day, we're all going to live together," said resident Bob Heller, who declined to say which group of candidates he supported early in the day's vote.

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

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