Sullivan’s Island’s best defense against rising seas and strong storms lies in the maritime forest that has grown up on accreted land. Cutting it down would be a mistake.
But on Tuesday, town officials will consider a compromise that would resolve years of controversy by allowing residents trim most of the brush in the area up to 40 feet past their property lines. It’s far from an ideal measure. Losing any of the forest increases the island’s vulnerability, and not just on the front beach.
A further consideration that would allow trimming up to 100 feet into the vegetation that has bulked up the beach over the past 25 years would be disastrous.
Under a proposal before the Town Council, all “understory, shrubs, cedars, pines, myrtles, invasive species and trees smaller than 6 inches in diameter” could be cleared within the first 40 feet from property lines.
Allowing the forest to be cut back for another 60 feet — removing virtually everything less than 12 feet tall — would represent an extremely misguided assault on the island’s homegrown storm barrier. In some spots, the forest is only a little more than 100 feet wide.
Fresh off a state Court of Appeals win in August, the town could refuse to allow any trimming. That’s the best approach. But town officials might consider a compromise that could seed an accommodation that most if not all residents can live with.
Homeowners say their properties have lost value because their ocean views are obstructed. Their properties would lose a lot more value if they washed away.
And it’s important to note that town officials aren’t meddling with what homeowners can do on their property. The maritime forest has built up beyond the property line, on public land owned by the town.
The “problem” with accretion is one that many other barrier islands would like to have. While the majority are eroding, Sullivan’s Island is actually growing, especially on the end nearest Fort Moultrie and toward the middle, where the forest has expanded to 1,000 feet or more.
The maritime forest is made up of some 125 plant species. It acts as a natural storm barrier and is a refuge for shorebirds, nesting sea turtles and other creatures. A study in Florida found that dune vegetation may be the best way to protect properties from rising seas and storm surge. For these reasons, most environmentalists favor letting the forest grow, as do most residents.
The town showed great foresight in 1991 when it made an agreement with the Lowcountry Land Trust to preserve the accreted land for the public’s benefit. And it has since enhanced the maritime forest with a boardwalk for everyone to enjoy.
Given the headache this issue has posed for years, it’s understandable that Town Council is considering a compromise. But its top priority must be to protect what the island has gained. The Sullivan’s Island maritime forest isn’t a nuisance or a public safety threat. It’s a lifesaver.