Beachwalker Park’s fate hinges on road

Kiawah Development Partners plans a 50-home development on Capt. Sam’s Spit, just past Beachwalker Park. The road to the development would go through the park.

KIAWAH ISLAND — The road that developers plan to build to Capt. Sam’s Spit would go straight through award-winning Beachwalker Park. So, what happens to the park?

At this point, that’s anybody’s guess.

“They have to accommodate us. They don’t have a choice,” said Tom O’Rourke, Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission director. But how or where is far from assured.

The fate of the scenic beach park that is annually rated one of the best in the country — one of only two remaining beach parks of any size in the county — is hanging in the balance just like the fate of the prized spit itself.

Kiawah Development Partners won’t say what plans they have.

O’Rourke said earlier discussion with the company centered on moving the parking lot grounds to accommodate the road.

“We have not discussed at any time realigning parking spaces,” said Mike Touhill, company public relations director.

O’Rourke says there was a discussion about deeding land to the county for the park; Touhill said deeding land never was discussed.

A state Supreme Court decision last week cleared the way for an access road across a narrow neck to the 15-acre spit, where the company plans to build 50 homes.

That approval was fought for years by environmental groups and opposed by frequenters. Capt. Sam’s is one of the few undeveloped barrier island spits that the public has ready access to. Its cape beach is a feeding ground that draws hordes of shorebirds. The banks of Capt. Sam’s Inlet between the spit and Seabrook Island are a rare strand-feeding ground where dolphin hunt bait fish by driving them up on the sand and jumping after them.

The only shore-based public access to the spit is through Beachwalker Park. No small part of the park’s allure is that coming off the boardwalk to the beach “you look to the right to see all that scenic beauty,” O’Rourke said.

Charleston County holds a 100-year lease to the park granted by developers in 1976 as a concession to win approval of their plan. Little known is that the lease doesn’t provide land; it provides for 180 parking spaces and beach access. Under terms of the lease, they could go anywhere. County attorneys did not immediately say if the lease provides terms under which either party could back out.

Meanwhile, Kiawah holds an easement for the spit access road through the current park grounds.

O’Rourke said that in the earlier talk he brought up putting the entire spit under conservation easement as part of the park and was told the commission couldn’t afford it.

Currently, developers say they will put 85 percent of the spit under conservation easement.

The proposed easement “would be deeded to the Kiawah Island Community Association to be placed in an easement for the Kiawah Island Nature Conservancy, not the Charleston County Parks and Recreation,” Touhill said.

But the battle over Capt. Sam’s isn’t the only public opinion battle that Kiawah interests are entrenched in. Island groups also are looking for political leverage to build a parkway to the mainland across Johns Island. Winning County Council votes is currently the key to that.

O’Rourke isn’t discouraged, he said. “I think they’re going to have a really rough road on this one,” he said about plans for the spit access road. He would like it placed outside the park. A deed to actual grounds “would be a coup for the agency. You can’t buy land like that,” he said. “I’m going to make them tell me no to protecting all this land.”