SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — This town may cut small trees and shrubs on land that have accreted here, marking a possible compromise in a long-simmering dispute but running afoul of best practices to battle sea level rise.

The land, which accumulated slowly after years of drifting sand along the shore, is currently covered by a maritime forest.

The phenomenon is a rarity along South Carolina's coast, where most beaches suffer from erosion and try to maintain their shorelines with beach renourishment projects every few years. 

But the land has been the center of a years-long battle between conservationists and some homeowners whose once-beachfront properties are now tucked behind a growing forest. The homeowners say the trees block views, lower property values, shelter pests and create a fire hazard.

The most recent step in the legal battle awarded a victory to the town when an appeals court ruled that it could not be forced to cut down vegetation. The management plan up for discussion by Town Council on Tuesday is a compromise of sorts: thinning vegetation in a 100-foot "transition zone" just below the private properties closest to the forest.

The plan would: 

  • Cut all understory, shrubs, cedars, pines, myrtles, invasive species and trees smaller than 6 inches in diameter in the first 40 feet from the property lines.
  • Cut all understory, shrubs, myrtles and trees smaller than 3 inches in diameter or 12 feet in height in the next 60 feet.

In 2016, Town Council agreed to a similar plan that would have also retained some myrtles in the second section, closer to the ocean, but the town took no action because the lawsuit continued on appeal.

"I personally thought, for many, many years, that the town, as owner of that land, that we really need to be better stewards and better neighbors, and the transition zone is part of the neighbor part of this, to try to address some of those concerns," Mayor Pat O'Neil said. 

Councilman Chauncey Clark said he's most concerned about a fire reaching homes if the forest gets too close. He said he favors more cutting than the current proposal allows but is eager to enact the plan anyway so town staff can get started on the work. 

"It's not what I want," he said of the proposed plan, "but it's something, and we’ll take it."

However, "living shorelines," with plantings designed to keep land in place, including encouraging native plants, are recommended by experts as one of the best ways to mitigate sea level rise over the long term.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends keeping native vegetation in its natural state, especially in areas prone to erosion. While Sullivan's Island does not have the typical long-term erosion problems of other beaches, it's still vulnerable to serious storms and sea level rise, like any other barrier island. 

Former Councilwoman Susan Middaugh, who lost her seat in 2016, said increasing the cutting in the second zone is unnecessary and that some thinning in the first 40 feet from front-row homes is more than enough to address the threat of fire. 

"I think an argument could be made (for) not removing any vegetation at all past the first 40 feet, in terms of storm surge and wave dissipation and protecting the land," she said. 

Others worry cutting any native vegetation back is the wrong move. 

"This is a great moment for the island to protect all the citizens in the most cost-effective, sustainable and best way (by leaving the plants alone)," islander Cyndy Ewing said. 

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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.

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