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Commentary: What's 'crumbling' on Sullivan’s Island is trust in town government

Sullivan's Island

Sullivan's Island/Provided

As mayor of Sullivan’s Island, I’ve often said I’m grateful for the size of our biggest problems.

We inhabit a beautiful sliver of land with a beach on one side, marsh and creeks on the other, permeated with a fascinating history that is part of our daily lives. We have a population of engaged, bright, community-spirited folks who share a deep affection for the island.

But that’s not to say we don’t have our problems. Our most prominent and divisive problem, ironically, results from a major aspect of our great good fortune: our accreting beachfront land.

An earlier Town Council had the vision to protect this growing land with the Lowcountry Land Trust and prevent it from development. Imagine what these more than 150 acres might otherwise look like: hotels and condos, restaurants, night clubs, T-shirt shops, as in so many beach communities anywhere.

Instead we have a growing, evolving, natural area that shows what Mother Nature can do if left to her own devices: vegetation patterns that reflect the maturation of “new” land as it acquires tenure, a truly green resource for stormwater management, habitat for an increasingly varied community of flora and fauna (more than 80 species of birds), marvelous and magical paths to the beach.

Patrick O'Neil (copy) (copy)

Pat O'Neil. Provided

In fact, our maritime forest is becoming a destination in itself for residents and visitors alike.

More than 10 years ago, however, the owners of two front-row properties, represented by an attorney who owns another, sued the town to force us to cut down to three feet everything that had grown since 1991. The town responded to protect its property rights. Fast forward many years: The state Supreme Court remanded the case to the local court for a full trial, for which the town had originally prepared.

Town Council agreed (6-1) to try mediation first — not to accept automatically whatever might come of it but to try to come to a mutually acceptable agreement without a trial.

By this time, council’s balance of power had shifted due to a single vote in the town’s 2019 election. After many executive sessions, a settlement agreement calling for widespread destruction of trees and shrubs was rammed through in a single open session by a 4-3 majority of Town Council. This “management plan” bore little relation to the many more reasonable approaches discussed over previous years.

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That 4-3 decision has provoked widespread outrage among our residents, but those perpetrating that decision say we should just “move on,” as they try to change the discussion to any other subject, even if it’s a fictional one.

On April 2, my challenger in next month’s mayoral race wrote in this newspaper that “our infrastructure is crumbling.”

That is completely untrue. Our town’s critical physical infrastructure has never been in better shape, thanks to:

  • A modernized water distribution system.
  • A new town hall and police station.
  • Major upgrading of our 1960s-era sewer treatment plant.
  • Extensive upgrading of our sewer collection system.
  • And a fire station rebuild.

“Crumbling”? Hardly. Our town-owned infrastructure is in great shape and getting better, and much of that work was paid for with extremely low-interest financing we obtained due to our Aa1 bond rating from Moody’s.

Our biggest physical infrastructure problem is now inadequate stormwater ditches, drains, pipes and outfalls owned by the S.C. Department of Transportation. The state can’t afford to maintain the system, much less repair or replace it, so the town is stepping up. We have obtained FEMA funding to address one specific area with longstanding serious flooding, as well as federal, state and county funding for other isolated projects.

More importantly, we also have another FEMA grant application pending for an island-wide engineering study to prioritize our most pressing stormwater needs and map out long-term solutions.

With our important election coming May 4, we need to rebuild what is truly our most critical infrastructure — albeit one that is not physical: the trust of our citizens in their town government. As we have learned, every single vote counts. Especially yours.

Patrick M. O’Neil is seeking re-election as mayor of Sullivan’s Island on May 4. He is a clinical psychologist and former chair of the South Carolina Board of Examiners in Psychology.

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