Beach-access battle on Hilton Head could be headed back to court

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 13, 2014 

A nearly decade-long property battle over beach access on Hilton Head Island might be headed back to court.

Carolyn Austin, who has fought since 2004 to block a beach access beside her home in North Forest Beach, has begun removing some of the trees to open a path, but not enough to suit the property owners association that sued her. The association says it wants the court to again intervene.

Austin, 76, put up brick columns and a gate, grew shrubs and trees and took her case all the way to the S.C. Supreme Court, spending more than $200,000 on legal fees, she says.

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case late last year, forcing her to comply with a 2009 Beaufort County court order requiring removal of the impediments and surrender control of the beach access to the Forest Beach Owners Association.

While Austin has removed some trees, done some trimming and taken down the gate, she hasn't fully complied with the court order, according to John Snodgrass, executive director of the Forest Beach Owners Association Inc.

Austin said she owns the narrow strip of land beside her house, which she uses as a driveway, and did not want it used by others. The homeowners association says it owns the property, and the courts agreed.

Austin has left the trimmings from plants, saying the association has to remove them. She has refused to remove other landscaping, saying she's prevented from doing so by a state law that prohibits removing items seaward of a state setback line.

Austin had until early December to comply with the order, Snodgrass said.

"We have requested that the court intervene and have her show cause as to why she has not complied with the court order," he wrote in an email.

"We have also requested that (the S.C. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management) come and mark the setback line. ... Once OCRM has marked the line, the town and the association will give her written authorization to remove the items ordered by the court that she contends she cannot now remove. Basically, we appear to be heading back to court."

Austin said cutting a path from her lot line to the beach would allow a gully of water to rush toward her property during a storm, undermining her home.

She argues that using the land beside her house for beach access is unnecessary, as there is a paved sidewalk to the beach mere feet away beside Sea Crest Villas.

"It's all sour grapes," Austin said Monday, standing next to a pile of tree limbs in her driveway. "For an island that finds trees precious and doesn't let anyone cut a tree down without planting two back, this is a disaster. Because I was ordered to destroy 36 trees to put a path 5 feet away from an already established concrete walkway."

The homeowners association says it has no legal right to use the paved sidewalk for beach access, and Sea Crest could stop residents from using it.

Town environmental planner Rocky Browder has been working with Austin to get her to comply with the court order, which requires her to remove the gate, brick columns, planters and 20 feet of trees from the eastern end of Avocet Street. Attempts Monday to reach Browder were unsuccessful.

"It makes me sick," Austin said. "They don't care what happens to the environment or neighborhood. ... I planted all of this to make the area look sophisticated and beautiful, and there's no reason to do this."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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