The creeks in and around Sea Pines have become so clotted with sediment that large boats might soon be unable to pass and the storied Harbour Town Yacht Basin might close to yachts, officials within the gated community say.
About eight yacht slips, amounting to 300 to 400 feet of dock space, already have been lost in Harbour Town because of silt filling the channel entrance.
At nearby South Beach Marina, smaller pontoon and motor boats sit in mud. Marina owner Bob Gossett recently rearranged the docks to move commercial boats farther from shore and give them better access to the marina. Still, boats sit high and dry at low tide.
"We're to the point where we've hit a critical stage," Gossett said.
In all, about 323,700 cubic yards of sand and mud need to be dredged from Harbour Town and South Beach marinas and Braddock Cove and Baynard Cove creeks, according to a 2008 engineering survey.
The entrance channel to Harbour Town is filling at a rate of 8 to 10 inches a year, said Mark King, president of The Club Group Ltd., which represents the Harbour Town boat-slip owners association.
"One year from now, if something's not done, we'll lose more slips," King said. "And the whole character of Harbour Town changes."At issue is how best to preserve that character. Dredging seems to be the answer, but the bigger questions -- which have lingered for eight years -- are how to pay for dredging and where to dump the spoil.
Some are optimistic that government, Sea Pines and business officials can work through these concerns. Others, including Beaufort County councilman and Harbour Town slip owner Stu Rodman, aren't so sure.
"I don't see a solution to it at this point," Rodman said.
Private groups have paid for dredging in the past, but costs have increased so much they can no longer afford it, said Cary Kelley, executive vice president of Sea Pines' Community Services Associates. The last round of dredging in Sea Pines, in 2003, cost about $2.5 million and was paid for by Sea Pines marina owners, businesses, boaters and homeowners along the waterways, according to Island Packet reports.
Current estimates for dredging are three to six times the 2003 cost -- between $7 million and $15 million -- Kelley said.
Lack of affordable disposal options, new permit requirements and the scope of work have driven much of the cost increase, he said.
Town Council has set aside $25,000 for a study of its potential role in dredging private marinas. The money has yet to be spent. CSA has asked that the money go toward studies to determine if, among other things, an on-land disposal site could be expanded, said Councilman George Williams Jr., who lives in Sea Pines.
That issue will go before council's Public Facilities Committee on March 1 before being considered by the full council, said town manager Steve Riley.
In 2009, the South Island Dredging Association asked the town to manage the next round of dredging, assuming liability should the project fail. Town staff opposed the idea, and council declined to act.
THE NEED TO DREDGE
Harbour Town's marina is a 7-iron shot from the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the PGA Tour's Heritage golf tournament. The event's annual telecast delivers images into homes around the globe of the candy-striped lighthouse and spectators aboard gleaming yachts.
But the marina may not be able to accommodate those eye-grabbing vessels much longer, King said.
King said four or five slip owners have relocated from Harbour Town to the Florida coast. In all, Harbour Town has lost 18 boats that were more than 70 feet long in the past 15 months.
"They can work around the tides, but many prefer not to sit in the silt at low tide," he said.
Commercial sightseeing and charter operations also are affected. Vagabond Cruise has canceled dozens of trips and eliminated some crew positions on its yacht at Harbour Town because the water wasn't deep enough, said Keith Walston, company president and CEO.
Some argue that if a solution isn't found soon, the problem will spiral. The value of adjacent properties could decline, hurting their owners and diminishing the town's property-tax base. Revenue on home and villa rentals and on retail, food and beverage sales could follow.
"We're going to be a kayak and canoe marina before you know it," said Harbour Town harbormaster Nancy Cappelmann.
Rodman says the county could lose as much as $3 million a year in property taxes alone.
THE SPOILS OF DREDGING
Despite consensus that Harbour Town, South Beach Marina and its feeder creeks need to be dredged, there is disagreement about where to dump the spoil.
The current dredging permit -- which expires in 2012 and is held by the South Island Dredging Association, made up of boat slip owners and Sea Pines residents -- calls for dumping it about 10 miles offshore, near the mouth of Port Royal Sound. The site has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has been used for past Sea Pines dredging projects.
Others say on-land disposal, possibly near Calibogue Cay or in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, would be better because of the regulatory restrictions on offshore disposal. But on-land disposal significantly adds to the cost.
Federal and state officials halted the South Island Dredging Association's previous efforts in 2003 to deepen the waterways after a contractor was accused of improperly dumping dredge spoil into Calibogue Sound, instead of the approved offshore site. The project manager was acquitted of federal criminal charges, and the dredging association -- facing fines of nearly $500,000 -- settled a lawsuit with state officials, paying $50,000 but admitting no wrongdoing.
Most of the 2003 project was completed before dredging was halted, but the area is now overdue for its next round of dredging.
After the problems in 2003, new requirements were attached to the permit: the association must hire a state-approved dredging contractor and the amount of sediment that overflows the barge headed to the dump site must be monitored.
Barge operators have been unwilling to guarantee spoil would not be spilled en route to the offshore site, according to the dredging association.
A CSA task force is working with the South Island Dredging Association to find a solution, Kelley said.
Jack Brinkley, president of the dredging association, declined to comment.
A January 2010 review of dredging in Sea Pines by Olsen & Associates recommended the dredging association's permit be amended to allow on-land disposal, and a site on Calibogue Cay has been considered. The site is not large enough to handle all the spoil, but it could handle Harbour Town's, coastal engineer Christopher Creed wrote in the review.
Spoil dumped at the Calibogue Cay site would be hauled to a landfill in Ridgeland, Kelley said.
That plan, however, could meet resistance from Calibogue Cay residents, who already use the site for their own dredging projects. The neighborhood, along the Intracoastal Waterway near Harbour Town, features homes with private docks with deep-water access to the Atlantic Ocean.
Kelley said that based on the amount of material to be dredged, thousands of dump-truck trips would have to be made on streets near Calibogue Cay. Calibogue Cay property owners also would have to sign off on use of the site, he added.
Some have suggested using up to 45 acres of undeveloped areas in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve for disposal. Development and use of the site would be expensive, Creed wrote in the review, and would mean removing trees and building a dike.
Any amendments to the dredging association's permit would require public hearings and approval from the state's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- a potentially lengthy process.
"We hope to have those answers in the next few weeks. We'd like ... some dredging work done (next) winter," Kelley said.
TAX DISTRICT PROPOSED
Along with disposal and permitting hurdles, there's also the matter of funding.
Estimates of dredging costs, depending on the method and dump site, range from $7 million to $15 million.
Some have suggested a municipal-improvement district within Sea Pines, which would establish a special property assessment.
Should council approve such an effort, owner-occupied homes within Sea Pines would have to consent to be taxed, according to state law. Owners of second homes, on the other hand, would automatically be taxed, Kelley said.
"We'd like to change (state law) so that everyone in the district would have to participate" automatically, following voter approval of those in Sea Pines to create the tax district, he said.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, did not close the door on the idea of legislative action.
"It depends on what is requested. You have to start with the common-sense notion that the financial burden of the dredging must be primarily borne by the slip owners," Davis said. "They are the ones who benefit the most.''
Questions about spoil disposal and cost need to be answered first, he said.
Kelley said property owners closest to the waterways probably would pay the most, and those living farthest away, the least.
"This is an issue for Sea Pines, and we need to find out how we're going to pay for it," he said.