Opportunity will come to weigh in on dredging plan for Sea Pines

July 14, 2011 

Nobody ever said doing large-scale development on a barrier island was easy.

After all, as soon as we place homes and hotels along the beach, the ocean and its littoral currents immediately begin to reconfigure the oceanfront according to its own nature, ignoring our millions of dollars worth of value.

On the Calibogue Sound side, our marinas and "improved" waterways, originally spartina marsh, boast many of the iconic images for which Hilton Head Island is known and admired. Perversely, with every tidal cycle, those iconic water features gain a bit of Calibogue silt, as they inexorably seek a return to marsh.

Consequently, every decade or so, we undertake to scoop up massive amounts of offshore sand and renourish our beaches and restore their protective dune system. The need is clearly manifest, and the costs of failure to address the need are such that we have in place a financial process to support this predictable, necessary expenditure.

The necessity to periodically remove the accumulated silt from our marinas and waterways is no less clear, but there has been to date no process analogous to the beach protection regime that will allow us to properly maintain these immensely valuable, well-performing assets. On the contrary, each dredging event seems to be a one-off affair, lacking predictability and consistency that might make for better planning and more cost-effective implementation. There is also the factor that we are dealing with privately held infrastructure that nonetheless has huge benefit to the residential public, as well as to our millions of visitors. Plainly, this necessity must be addressed in a sustainable and cost-effective manner.

The preliminary discussions regarding a potential tool to address the funding side of the issue included myself and state Sen. Tom Davis, along with Hilton Head Mayor Drew McLaughlin, town manager Steve Riley and Cary Kelley, executive vice president of Community Services Associates, the group maintaining Sea Pines' common assets. That potential tool is called a municipal improvement district, a feature of Home Rule that allows municipalities to tax themselves for qualified civic needs. The problem was that the language in the law was not completely congruent with the need in question. I was tasked to amend the enabling legislation, which involved the addition of one word, "waterways," to the application clause of the law.

Before committing to the task, I had extensive conversations with local elected officials, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, representatives of local environmental groups, as well as a number of Sea Pines property owners, both resident and non-resident. Satisfied that a municipal improvement district was an appropriate tool for our situation; I introduced a bill early in the legislative session to amend the law. With unanimous support from the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation, the bill passed the House with little opposition. Sen. Davis and I have discussed amending the bill in the Senate to require a taxpayer referendum before implementation.

When the bill passes the Senate and becomes law after the first of the year, what happens next? The Town of Hilton Head Island can begin the process of creating the tax district, which involves workshops and informational meetings to inform the public and take comment from stakeholders. It also will involve the aforementioned referendum before being allowed to take effect. What it would not do is allow the town to impose a tax on anyone without due process. Those of you who followed my campaign and endorsed my convincing election as your state representative surely must understand that I would never be party to the imposition of any tax, regardless of reason, without expressed "consent of the governed." It won't happen, no time, no how.

This is where we stand: The particulars of the dredging are essentially a conversation between the engineers and the regulators. With at least four layers of oversight, especially given recent dredging history, I am confident the project will be done to the absolute highest environmental standard. Concurrent with the physical work, the financial architecture will be constructed, perhaps as a municipal improvement district, perhaps as something else. That conversation will be ongoing for some time, with everyone given a proper chance to weigh in.

As for me, I will continue to be of service to all stakeholders in whatever way I can. We will work our way through this difficult challenge. The prospect of having the Harbour Town lighthouse guiding the way to a newly established spartina marshland is not imminent, at least not on my watch. Besides, nobody ever said doing large-scale development on a barrier island was easy.

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