Town should determine role in dredging project

Before Hilton Head Island spends any more time or money on the issue of dredging Sea Pines waterways and marinas, Town Council should define and vote on exactly what the town's role is to be.

The ambiguity with which that role has been approached so far prevents a reasonable assessment of the town's efforts, including tax dollars spent. The council's discussion should begin with whether the town should even take on any additional role and cost beyond its existing oversight.

A council committee Monday recommended spending $25,000 to hire an independent consultant to compile, validate and make a recommendation on information gathered so far on how the dredging should proceed.

Councilman George Williams' assertion that "the town is going to have to take some type of responsibility for dredging island waterways on an ongoing basis" is his opinion, not an official position.

"Some type of responsibility" raises more questions than it answers. One of the issues to be addressed is the implication for waterway and marina maintenance outside of Sea Pines. Lest we forget, there are other marinas, creeks and canals that must be maintained around the island.

The town already has an oversight role. Design plans, including state and federal permits, must be submitted to the town to ensure the work won't violate town natural resource-protection laws and other development guidelines.

The South Island Dredging Association, the consortium of residential and commercial interests responsible for dredging done in 2003, has long pushed for town support. In 2001, it asked for $150,000 in state accommodations tax money, but withdrew its request after concerns were raised. In 2003, the town agreed to pay the group up to $300,000 for "beach quality" sand for South Beach. The town stopped the bungled work two months later and never paid any money.

In 2008, the dredging association asked the town to be the engineer of record and contract manager for the next round of dredging. But town staff recommended against it given the potential liabilities and permit requirements. Restrictions on the state permit were a result of the 2003 project. State and federal regulators concluded that about 75 percent of the muck dredged ended up in Calibogue Sound rather than the approved offshore dump site.

Community Services Associates, the group that maintains Sea Pines' community assets, had asked for part of the town's $25,000 for a study to determine how much dredge spoil could be dumped at an upland site on Calibogue Cay, whether the site could be expanded and how the spoil would be permanently disposed of. The rest would have gone toward a study on dredging Braddock and Baynard coves.

Council member Kim Likins said the committee's recommendation would allow the town to look at all options, including open-water disposal. That means potentially dumping dredge spoil into Calibogue Sound. That idea met with a great deal of opposition when first proposed in 2001, including objections from state and federal regulators. So much so that the dredging association withdrew its application and sought the permit to dump at the offshore site.

Options other than dumping in Calibogue Sound have always been available. Money has been the driving factor for dumping in the sound. Cheapest is not always best, and Hilton Head officials, of all people, should know that.