Developers preparing to revive a Daufuskie Island resort from bankruptcy have disturbed a protected nesting area for herons, egrets and other wading birds, according to Beaufort County officials.
The county's code-enforcement department stopped the work Nov. 27 after learning workers for Melrose on the Beach -- formerly The Daufuskie Island Resort and Breathe Spa -- removed vegetation from the nesting area near the old beachfront hotel.
"It does appear that they did disturb the rookery," said Audra Antonacci, director of code enforcement. "They did remove vegetation from the rookery."
Jim Shead, project manager at the resort site, acknowledges crews removed the wax myrtles and other vegetation during recent site maintenance. He says nobody knew it was protected.
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"We have been landscaping almost everything and getting things back to what it should look like. That was an area we thought was not a protected area," he said. "We did like anybody would do in overgrown areas that are in public view, and cleaned up."
The matter is still under investigation, and no fines or penalties have been levied against Pelorus Group, which bought much of the resort in May 2011. Violations of the county's tree ordinance, which also protects rookeries, carry a maximum fine of $500 or 30 days in jail for each offense.
Daufuskie resident Roger Pinckney said two islands in a small pond and some surrounding areas comprised the nesting area. It is on the hotel site, near Avenue of the Oaks.
For several months each year, it is home to hundreds of egrets, herons and other species, though none was present when the vegetation was cut. Pinckney said about half of the nesting area is gone.
"Why they would do that is what I can't understand," he said this week. "Why divert resources to destroy something that was an amenity?"
Pelorus Group, of Salt Lake City, paid $13 million for the bankrupt resort's inn, Melrose golf course and other resort amenities. Shead said tentative plans are to reopen the 52-room resort next year.
The order to stop work also prohibits additional construction that damages the nesting area. It does not require work to cease elsewhere on the site. Antonacci said state and federal authorities have been notified about the rookery damage.
Although the developers' actions appear to have violated county code, it doesn't appear they broke state or federal law. Unoccupied nesting areas typically do not have the same protections as those with birds and their eggs, according to Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The wading-bird expert at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources could not be reached for comment.
"These rookeries are very specialized habitats," said Dana Beach, head of the nonprofit S.C. Coastal Conservation League. "They are not available extensively anymore on the coast because of the extent of development."
He said many areas that might seem like perfect rookeries to people are shunned by the birds.
For some, that makes the Daufuskie situation that much more upsetting.
"That's what everybody said about endangered species -- they will just go somewhere else," said Sheldon resident Sally Murphy, a retired S.C. DNR biologist. "Well, we are running out of somewhere elses."