Public help for dredging must be proportional

Supporters of public involvement in the dredging of private marinas in Sea Pines carry their argument with the persistence and regularity of the tides.

Say if often enough, and it will be deemed true. But we would remind everyone that Harbour Town and South Beach marinas were built decades ago, and it has only been in recent years that their private owners have knocked on the public's door for help with dredging.

That call for public help came after other smaller, private marinas and waterways were linked to the higher profile dredging work.

The clearest and most consistent argument for public help is that we all lose if the Harbour Town Yacht Basin silts in, damaging Hilton Head Island's most notable -- and marketable -- symbol. If that's the case, then that's where public help should focus. Decouple Harbour Town from the rest of the South Island Dredging Association dredging work. Let private solutions be found for private problems.

If the case can be made for public help for South Beach Marina, given its commercial operations, some public intervention might be warranted.

But consider: Of the estimated 323,700 cubic yards of material to be dredged from the areas included under the dredging association umbrella, according to a 2008 engineering survey, only 65,100 cubic yards lie in the Harbour Town marina and entry channel. That's just 20 percent of the total volume. The volume for South Beach Marina is 24,350 cubic yards, or about 8 percent of the total.

Maintaining Sea Pines property values in more private areas should be left to the community. We have confidence that residents and business owners there, through the work of Community Services Associates, can come up with appropriate solutions for disposal and financing.

Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin said in a Jan. 12 speech that he wants to see action on dredging in Sea Pines and that he was looking for a solution.

"There is an urgent need there and clear public interest to solve that issue," Laughlin said. "That has real economic consequences attached to it. ... Hopefully, it can get done -- not on the town's nickel."

That leaves us to ponder what role he thinks the town should play if not a monetary one.

Laughlin also said, "(The dredging association) wants open-water disposal, which drives the environmental people absolutely nuts. But open-water disposal is far and away the least costly way to do it."

Hilton Head and its reputation were not built on the idea that cheap is the best way to go, and that's true when it comes to dealing with the natural resources that surround it, including Calibogue Sound, the site proposed for open-water disposal.

There have always been disposal solutions that meet state and federal environmental protections available to the dredging association; they just haven't liked the costs associated with them.

If town officials think they must get involved because of the public benefits that accrue, then they must link that public help directly to the public benefits and keep that help in proper proportion. The private entities that benefit from the dredging must pay their fair share, and the public resources that belong to all of us must be protected.