Special tax district offers viable dredging funding

Creating a special tax district in Sea Pines could provide an equitable, long-term funding solution for dredging the south-island community's marinas and waterways, including the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, the scenic backdrop for today's Heritage golf tournament.

A bill, which sailed through the state House of Representatives in just one week, would allow the Town of Hilton Head Island to create a municipal improvement district to pay for widening and dredging waterways. It is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Town and Sea Pines officials have talked about a plan that would have property owners who benefit most from the dredging paying more, but all of the community's property owners paying something toward the project.

Sea Pines owners paying for the project would be a lot more politically palatable than an islandwide funding plan.

Town officials indicate they wouldn't move ahead with the idea unless it was approved in a referendum, even though state law wouldn't require owners to opt in as it does for other types of municipal improvement projects.

If it could be done, that vote should include resident and nonresident property owners. Second-home owners and commercial property owners have a big stake in this, too.

Most importantly, the relatively minor change in the law does not seek to skirt any local, state or federal regulatory oversight. No matter how dredging is paid for it should be held to stringent environmental standards.

We have not supported public dollars going toward dredging that benefits private entities, but a fee or tax levied within Sea Pines would be akin to a special assessment by the community. And if a referendum were held, the people of Sea Pines would determine whether they wanted to pay for dredging that historically has been paid for by private interests.

Town Council would have to vote to create the district, and as part of the process, hold a public hearing.

State Rep. Andy Patrick of Hilton Head said he sponsored the legislation after speaking with officials from the town, Sea Pines Resort and Sea Pines' Community Services Associates.

The Sea Pines community has been struggling with how to move ahead on dredging since a 2003 project by the South Island Dredging Association, a consortium of commercial and residential property owners in Sea Pines, was shut down by state and federal officials. Permit restrictions cited today as a problem are a result of that botched 2003 project and part of a negotiated settlement that had the dredging association pay the state $50,000. The group had faced potential fines of nearly $500,000.

The dredging association and others, particularly Councilman George Williams, have long pushed for the town to get involved in the dredging, something town staff and other council members have resisted. But that resistance is weakening as the need to dredge the community's waterways and marinas, particularly Harbour Town, grows.

Current estimates put the costs to dredge at $7 million to $15 million, says Cary Kelley, executive vice president of Community Services Associates.

Earlier this year, Town Council voted to spend up to $25,000 to hire an independent consultant to compile, validate and make a recommendation on information gathered so far on how dredging in Sea Pines should proceed. That includes "open-water disposal," which could mean dumping the spoil in Calibogue Sound. That idea met with a great deal of opposition when first proposed in 2000, including from state and federal regulators, and there's little reason to think it won't again. It should be avoided.

The town's decision to spend the money to research Sea Pines' options was a critical step on the path to taking on responsibility for dredging beyond its current oversight role. Moving to create a municipal improvement district would put the town well down that road. Every step will have to be carefully considered.