The Forest at Forest Beach had stood wild and beautiful since before anyone came to Hilton Head Island. Since Aug. 7 that is no longer true.
After Hurricane Matthew, it was determined that FEMA funds could be used to clean out stormwater drainage ditches on the island. The town realized that some of them had been neglected for years. The Forest at Forest Beach is a case in point. It contains a small stormwater collection ditch that runs parallel to the bicycle path on North Forest Beach Drive from Egret Street to Park Road, where it makes a right-angled turn and ends on Lagoon Road. It is dry most of the year, collects stormwater, absorbs the water and dries out again.
Town engineers devised a plan for cleaning out the ditch. None of the Forest Beach residents, nor the Forest Beach Owners Association (FBOA), was consulted or informed.
The area is a narrow maritime forest that was home to many animals and specimen hardwood trees. It was purchased by the town with monies from real estate transfer fees and designated to remain protected. A large, posted town sign indicates this.
CrowderGulf, the town’s hurricane recovery contractor, was instructed to cut a 15-foot wide road through the middle of the forest to allow heavy equipment to gain access to the small ditch. CrowderGulf also cut a new 50-foot entrance into the forest from Park Road, even though it is openly accessible from Heron Street. No one from the town supervised the work; neighbors began questioning the forest’s destruction and they called the town.
The town says that no records are kept of the number of trees removed. The neighbors counted the stumps left after the bulldozing. By our count there were 287 trees removed.
The ditch was not cleaned out. There is more debris in the ditch than before this project began.
The ditch only collects stormwater. There is an underground drainage system along many of the streets in the area that works very well.
Town officials now admit that the process could have been less destructive and that they should have informed the FBOA in advance. After halting the work for one day, town engineers tagged a few trees to be saved. It was already too late for 75 percent of the forest.
So now, we have some questions for town officials:
1. Why wasn’t this process announced in advance to the FBOA?
2. Were any environmentalists consulted? Was the destruction of the forest worth a little extra FEMA money?
3. Why is working with the town so contentious? In the future can we have dialog with the town? Can everyone work together? Can the area residents help keep the ditch clean?
4. Could a small Bobcat do the job in the future, with no harm to the rest of the forest?
5. Why didn’t the town engineers consider the efficient under-the-street drainage system? Was it because its maintenance wouldn’t have been eligible for FEMA reimbursement?
6. When will the forest receive mitigation from the town, as promised?
7. Does the town have an unstated objective for carving out a roadway through the Forest at Forest Beach?
When the town claims that the forest is town-owned property, it means that it is owned by the residents. We are the town. It is our Forest at Forest Beach, and that should be recognized. No town official has apologized, and “I’m sorry” won’t bring back the forest.
Some underbrush will grow back, but magnolias, oaks, pines, palmettos, sweet gums, etc., take years to grow tall and strong. A barred owl that was vocal all summer, talking back and forth to the residents and tourists, was killed.
What is left of our forest is silent. For an island that spends so much money on preserving the natural environment, this is puzzling and shocking.
The Forest Beach Owners Association board of directors approved this essay.