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Sullivan's Islanders look for new ways to protect maritime forest after council vote

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houses maritime forest Sullivans Island.jpg (copy) (copy)

Sullivan's Island's maritime forest has grown on part of its accreted beachfront over 25 years — much of it may now be cut, though some residents are planning to block the work. File/Wade Spees/Staff 

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — Three weeks after Town Council narrowly voted to cut part of the maritime forest, residents who want to see the land stay wild aren't giving up.

They've turned to public pressure campaigns and future permit hearings with efforts they hope will block the chopping. 

The vote Oct. 2 was a departure from former management plans on Sullivan's. It settled a decade-long lawsuit from a small group of property owners next to the forest.

By a count of four to three, council approved a plan that will totally remove immature trees in some parts of the forest and remove most smaller trees in other areas. That is far more cutting than was previously contemplated.

Island resident Larry Kobrovsky told council members during the meeting it was "a day of infamy and shame on our island that will be remembered as long as people live on this island."

Now, Kobrovsky is running ads in a community newspaper and looking for any route he can to stop the forest thinning. He and others are hoping they will have another chance to make their case when the town eventually has to get permits for the cutting work from the state and also the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

The accreted land on Sullivan's has been an issue almost as long as it has existed. Piled up because the nearby Charleston Harbor jetties stop sand from drifting away, the land was put under conservation easement 30 years ago, and gradually some areas of the scrub have sprouted into forest. 

The thickets blocked beach views and breezes for some who live next to it, though, prompting the 2010 lawsuit. It was fought all the way up to the S.C. Supreme Court and might have ended up in another trial if the town had not settled it with the new cutting plan. 

Island conservationists say the groves are protection against hurricane surge and provide valuable greenspace and animal habitat. The vote has helped to galvanize those that wanted to let the maritime forest take its natural course, said islander Norman Khoury.

"If anyone thinks this effort is going to fade away or get less, they will see they are sorely mistaken," he said. 

The main outlet will be opposing permits from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which is primarily responsible for reviewing proposals that affect land seaward of its beach building lines. That covers much of the accreted land, particularly from Station 18½ to Station 26½, but not all of it. 

The Corps, meanwhile, reviews permits that disrupt wetlands. If wetlands are found in an official survey, it's unlikely they will span the entire area that may be cut, however.

Kobrovsky and Khoury are encouraging their neighbors to call the two agencies and voice their disapproval even before the town has asked for a permit.

Sullivan's is working on crafting a specific plan to implement the settlement and is in early talks with regulators, Town Administrator Andy Benke said. 

Conservationists also turned their scrutiny on the elected officials who voted for the plan. Several people opposed to cutting the forest claim there's a conflict for two of the council members who voted for more cutting, Greg Hammond and Chauncey Clark. Both men own property adjacent to the protected land, and their opponents say they will benefit from the cutting plan. 

“My street benefits from expansive views of the beach," Hammond, who lives on Pettigrew Street, told The Post and Courier. "The trimming agreed to in the settlement will not affect my view."

Clark, who lives on the same street, said his views aren't obstructed either. He said he was eager to settle the legal dispute instead of continuing in court, where "the town might lose all control of what would have happened to the land."

The other council members who voted for the settlement are Tim Reese and Kaye Smith.

The situation is not a new one. The town asked the S.C. Ethics Commission years ago for an opinion on whether a council member with land next to the forest should vote on forest management, and in 2008, the commission answered. It said these landowners are part of a "large class" — or, in other words, there were enough people on the island who lived next to the forest that the situation didn't pose a unique conflict for the council member. 

Councilwoman Sarah Church, who voted against the plan, also lives next to the forest and is in support of protecting it. 

Meanwhile, some are waiting with worry to see what the forest will look like if the work gets done.

painted bunting

A painted bunting captured at a bird banding station in Sullivan's Island's maritime forest. Sarah Diaz/Provided

Sarah Diaz, an independent biologist, said the plan could remove almost all low-lying myrtles and shrubs in the area where she has placed eight nets to capture and study birds on the island. 

She's set up her bird banding station in the most productive part of the forest, she said, by Station 16. There, the low, scrubby habitat, protected from the sun, turns up painted buntings and Cooper's hawks. 

"The amount they're taking out is just going to be unbelievable," she said.

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

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