By Steve Bailey
Think your vote doesn’t matter? Consider the story of the Sullivan’s Island maritime forest.
Greg Hammond, who works for Charleston billionaire investor Ben Navarro and lives in a $3 million oceanfront house, last year was elected to Sullivan’s Island Town Council by a single vote. That one-vote margin, in turn, allowed Hammond this month to cast the deciding vote that will forever change the island’s magical maritime forest. This cannot be allowed to stand.
At a moment when oceans are rising and beaches are eroding (see Isle of Palms and Folly Beach — and the other end of Sullivan’s for that matter), the maritime forest is a gift, a gift of nature and the jetties. But rather than being grateful for all they have been given, some of the most blessed people on the planet have spent years hysterical about this miracle of nature.
The forest, the beachfront millionaires charge in a decade-old lawsuit, is a scary place infested with coyotes and snakes and vermin, oh my! The forest could go up in flames! There are mosquitos! It could harbor criminals! You can’t make up this stuff — it takes an exceptionally talented lawyer to do that.
The real issue, and they are explicit about it in their lawsuit, is that the forest blocks their ocean views and hurts their property values. “The plaintiffs’ properties have been reduced in fair market value by one million ($1,000,000) dollars,’’ they said in the 2010 lawsuit.
What they don’t say is that no one benefited more than the front beach homeowners when the town, showing uncommon vision, helped create a trust in 1991 that would forever protect the land that was accreting, thanks to the jetties just offshore. This meant beachfront owners would never have to worry about a new row of houses blocking their views. To see what could have been, look no farther than Isle of Palms, where developer J.C. Long infamously bulldozed the dunes around Christmas 1974 to cash in on a hideous new front row.
The expanding Sullivan’s Island beachfront, however, belongs not to the homeowners but to the public. The land trust was created for the many not the few. Only 10% of the island’s 900 homes abut the protected zone, many of them second homes. The Constitution guarantees no one the right to unobstructed oceanviews from the master suite of their beach house.
Bob Trussler has spent 39 years on the island, most of it on the second row at Station 16. It’s not the forest blocking residents’ views, he says, but the ever-larger trophy homes being built on the oceanfront. The forest has protected his neighborhood from storms; cutting it back is “insane.”
“Let nature do its thing, and eventually you get something beautiful,” says Trussler, a retired architect.
And that it is — as beautiful a garden, wild and authentic, as you can find anywhere. But enjoy it while you can, because the beachfront property owners are about to turn it into a manicured forest to match their manicured yards.
Under a settlement negotiated behind closed doors, the first 100 feet in front of the property owners’ homes will be clear cut with the exception of mature palmettos and live oaks. Homeowners, block by block, will be able to fund the pruning of larger trees and elimination of most cedars, pines, hackberries and underbrush far down the beach.
To Hammond, it’s a “reasonable compromise.” Mayor Pat O’Neil calls it “legally mandated deforestation.”
If not the will of the people, this alleged compromise is the will of the Town Council’s “four cutters,” as they are known. Hammond, 38, and his next-door neighbor, Chauncey Clark, who has his own $3 million house on the beach, joined with Tim Reese, one of the island’s top real estate agents, and Kaye Smith to approve the settlement. Together, they muscled through a series of 4-3 votes.
Asked to include their signatures on the settlement, they voted against that, too, 4-3. But make no mistake: If this outrage stands, the four cutters will be remembered just as J.C. Long and his bulldozers are all these years later.
The best hope for saving the forest now rests with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Army Corps of Engineers, which must permit the work. And a town election in May, a chance to vote the bums out, or at least some of them.
Even now, there remains a better solution to this contentious mess; the Albenesius family, one of the original plaintiffs, showed the way. In 2017, seven years after filing the lawsuit, they sold their massive modern beachfront house on Atlantic Avenue and moved.
It’s such a reasonable compromise, actually, for distraught homeowners. Move — there will be no shortage of buyers delighted to take your place in paradise. And if your property values have been dented a bit by that scary forest, here’s betting your neighbors are ready to start a GoFundMe page to send you on your way.
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @sjbailey1060.