Getting the Town of Hilton Head Island involved in Sea Pines dredging projects is a decade old idea, and we still haven't heard a convincing public-benefit argument for the time, trouble, expense and potential liability it would involve.
The most compelling argument has been how badly the South Island Dredging Association handled its 2003 endeavor, which was shut down by state and federal regulators before it was finished. But the group has a new plan and a new state permit, with a federal permit expected to follow shortly, to dump dredge spoil near the mouth of Calibogue Sound.
At a minimum, the town should see how this next round of dredging fares before making any decision. We may find yet that this group can look out after its own interests and do so without harming the environment. And there's no rush from a permitting standpoint for the town to get involved, as there might have been in years past when the issue was raised. The state permit is good for five years, and a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be good for 10 years.
Councilman George Williams, who lives in Sea Pines and has been involved with the South Island Dredging Association, brings up town involvement with regularity. In 2008, Williams said the town shouldn't leave dredging Sea Pines marinas and waterways to a "bunch of yokels," referring to the dredging association. Today, he says the expected departure of association president Jack Brinkley after this round of dredging is a reason for the town to step in. Brinkley has handled permitting for the group for the past 12 years, and Williams says town staff might be best suited to replace his expertise.
But we don't buy that. An organization so dependent on a single individual is not very strong, and we haven't seen any sign that the dredging association doesn't have the wherewithal to find or hire a suitable replacement without turning to the town.
It is not enough that town staff might be experienced at dealing with state and federal regulators, and they enjoy no special privileges. The town has to follow the same rules as any other entity seeking permits. The question is what role, if any, the town should play in managing projects that involve private property and private interests. And if it helps Sea Pines dredging projects, why not get involved in dredging other island marinas?
It also should be noted that the town already has a regulatory role in dredging projects. Such projects are considered "development." Design plans, including state and federal permits, must be submitted to the town to ensure the work will not violate town natural resource-protection laws and other development guidelines.
Comparing dredging to beach renourishment doesn't work, as Councilman John McCann points out. The beach is public; Harbour Town is not.
We will say that had the town been in charge of permitting for Sea Pines dredging, it might not have sought to dump dredge spoil near Barrett Shoals, a source of sand for its renourishment projects. Under the recently issued state permit, the dredge spoil is to be piped to 56 acres next to the shoals. Town engineer Scott Liggett noted last year that the spoil is not "beach compatible," and if it doesn't dissipate as predicted it could force the town to find an alternative source of sand for renourishment.
Town officials have been debating their role in Sea Pines dredging since at least 2001, when the association first approached them about an accommodations tax grant. The idea of the town overseeing and managing dredging operations at Hilton Head marinas was discussed at length in 2005, as a result of the Sea Pines dredging debacle. That discussion coincided with a state survey of coastal marinas to see what the demands were for dredging and spoil disposal. The state survey found that dredging and disposal was not an islandwide problem. Other marinas that responded to the survey either had no dredging issues or had viable disposal solutions. One expressed interest in the town making available a disposal site.
Williams and other council members who support the idea of a town role in Sea Pines dredging have yet to make their case. More studies are sure to follow.