Two mayoral candidates and five town council candidates are vying for support in Sullivan’s Island’s coming May 4 election, but a decade-long lawsuit over trimming the barrier island’s maritime forest weighs heavy on the process.
Homeowners cited concerns of vermin and wildfire risk when they requested the forest be trimmed prior to the lawsuit, which was settled by the town in October with a plan to cut many smaller trees. Other residents objected to the plan entirely, wanting the forest to stay wild instead.
At a Tuesday forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, each of the hopefuls had something to say regarding the matter.
“People are exhausted with the continuous fight,” mayoral candidate and Town Councilman Chauncey Clark said during the forum. “Many people on the island are tired of our inability to come to some reasonable compromise on this issue. It’s torn the island in two.”
Many agree the settlement and subsequent management plan have been divisive, but some believe the fight is worth it to arrive at a favorable outcome for the island as a whole.
“It’s correct that this has been discussed for 20+ years,” incumbent Mayor Pat O’Neil said during the forum. “But, the agreement the town signed onto bears little resemblance and little relation to the kinds of input we got over these many years — it was, pure and simple, a response to the suit. This is something that flies in the face of what the community has been asking for for many years.”
Added trouble arose after a survey found 65 acres of the forest contains wetlands, and more land was classified as special coastal zones protected by the state of South Carolina.
The current plan, according to Town Councilman Tim Reese, is not deforestation, but a multi-zone land project with three zones of varying levels of thick tree line.
Other issues facing Sullivan’s Island residents include local impacts of rapid growth around the Lowcountry as a whole, along with the effects of climate change. Concerns over traffic, parking and flooding are also part of the conversation in the 2,200-person town ahead of the upcoming election.
And in light of how island leaders have handled those priorities, one challenger said, transparency has become an issue as well.
“The process we have of engaging our community and its citizens is broken,” council candidate Kevin Pennington said during the forum. “Attending town council meetings is only a partial process, and it isn’t a constructive forum for problem solving and engaging the intelligence and resources we have available in the community. I want to see that process changed, and we have to provide that opportunity.”
Other candidates present at the forum were Scott Millimet, Justin Novak and Gary Visser. The full online forum was recorded and can be viewed on the League of Women Voters’ Facebook page. Voters head to the polls on May 4.