Developers who damaged an egret and heron rookery last month while landscaping around a shuttered Daufuskie Island resort won't be fined, according to Beaufort County officials.
Audra Antonacci, the county's director of code enforcement, determined from interviews and from examining before and after photos that workers at Melrose on the Beach removed vegetation but no trees from the nesting area.
"Since they truly did not violate a county ordinance, no citation has been issued," Antonacci said Tuesday. "And none will be unless they go out there and cut trees down."
County codes prohibit tree removal from rookeries. Clearing other vegetation, which in this case was mostly wax myrtles and other shrubs, is not against the law.
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The nesting site is on two small islands and on brush surrounding a small pond on the grounds of the former Daufuskie Island Resort and Breathe Spa, which closed more than three years ago.
During the nesting season, hundreds of egrets, herons and other wading birds made the area home. The site was favorable because alligators that lived in the pond protected nests from raccoons and other predators, according to island resident Roger Pinckney.
Pelorus Group of Salt Lake City bought the former hotel, the Melrose golf course and other resort amenities last year. The group hopes to reopen the 52-room hotel next year.
The county stopped the landscaping work Nov. 27 after receiving a complaint the day before. Antonacci reviewed photographs and interviewed project manager and equity partner Jim Shead, among others, before determining no violations occurred. She did not visit the site.
Shead described the rookery damage as an accident committed by crews trying to clean up the resort property. Nobody knew it was a rookery, he said last week.
Christy Hand, wading bird specialist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, confirmed on Tuesday the site was an active, state-recognized rookery during the 2012 spring and summer nesting season. No birds were present when the vegetation was removed, meaning there probably won't be state or federal sanctions either.
Although the brush removal appears to be legal, it spurred a strong response from some island residents.
The Daufuskie Island Conservancy wrote a letter to newspapers condemning the resort's actions.
"Given the challenges that colonial nesting birds face, the recent destruction of rookeries at the Melrose Club is extremely regrettable," the group wrote. "We also urge the Pelorus Group to seek approval of the appropriate governmental authorities to undertake remedial action to address the damage that has been done to the already fragile nesting habitat at Melrose."
Shead said the investors plan to let the rookery site grow back.
"We haven't done anything more, and we're not going to," Shead said Tuesday of clearing around the rookery. "We're going to let nature take its course."
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.