What the Harbour Town dredging issue is teaching us

R-BeaufortMarch 11, 2012 

Last year, the S.C. House of Representatives passed a bill (H. 4033) that would allow the Hilton Head Island Town Council to tax owners of property within Sea Pines, without their consent, for the cost of dredging and disposing of sediment in the Harbour Town Yacht Basin and the creeks of Braddock and Baynard coves. I had concerns about the bill then, so I blocked it.

Tuesday, the bill came up again, this time for consideration by the full Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee passed H. 4033 on an 11-to-8 vote, and I immediately filed a minority report on the bill. What that means is, pursuant to the Senate rules, the bill cannot be considered by the body unless it is set for "special order debate" by a supermajority vote. I have obtained the necessary assurances from senators on both sides of the aisle that such will not happen, so H. 4033 is effectively dead.

This is only the second time I have used the Senate rules to kill a bill, and I didn't do it lightly. (The other time was to stop a $175 million taxpayer subsidy of a privately-owned shopping mall planned for construction at the headwaters of the Okatie River.) For that reason, I want to explain to my constituents why I took this action.

First, H. 4033 would permit a new tax to be levied on Sea Pines owners by a simple majority vote of Town Council. I respect the council members, but I oppose as a matter of general principle the creation of a new class of taxes, especially when there is no public referendum requirement.

Second, it is bad public policy to rely upon government taxes and action when a feasible private alternative exists. The restrictive covenants for Sea Pines allow the owners to levy a special assessment for the dredging of the yacht basin and the creeks, provided such is approved via a referendum.

I realize that such referenda have failed in the past, but that does not justify using the coercive power of government. I have confidence that Sea Pines owners will, as a community, come together to devise an equitable solution that can be approved. They understand very well the importance of dredging the yacht basin.

That can-do spirit was on display last year when the Hilton Head community rallied to find a title sponsor for the RBC Heritage golf tournament. A state-government bailout had been proposed, and I got my share of grief for opposing it. But in the end, thanks to the tireless efforts of local leaders like Steve Wilmot and Simon Fraser, first-rate corporate sponsors for the tournament signed the dotted line.

Third, it makes no sense to authorize a new tax for a project whose cost is unknown. Mayor Drew Laughlin has asked: "What is the improvement plan? What work will be carried out? How will it be carried out? On what schedule? What is the estimated cost? How will the work be funded? Who will be assessed? How can costs be fairly allocated according to benefit?" Those are good questions. And once the answers are known, the Sea Pines community will be able to develop and implement a plan. But not before then.

Finally, a word about the disposal issue: The proposal to pump the dredged sediment to the mouth of Calibogue Sound on an outgoing tide is a sound option that merits serious consideration. Yes, science -- not politics -- should determine if such is environmentally safe. And yes, the special legislation pushed in 2003 to remove Sea Pines' dredging from environmental oversight was, as has been opined in this newspaper, "a good example of bad lawmaking."

But that was in 2003, and the current good faith effort to obtain an open-water disposal permit should not be unduly tainted. Last July, the boards for the Association of Sea Pines Plantation Property Owners and Community Services Associates, and the South Island Dredging Association, all committed to following the permitting process and proving that such disposal is a scientifically, environmentally defensible option.

Representatives of those groups and environmental advocates have met and will continue to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and any member of the public who wishes to participate in the permitting process should be permitted to do so. Trust that was lost can only be regained through openness and transparency.

The stakes are high for not only the Sea Pines community but for all of Hilton Head; we cannot allow Harbour Town to become a kayak basin. And I am confident that, as it did with the Heritage golf tournament, the community will once again rise to the occasion.

Tom Davis represents Beaufort County in the state Senate.

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