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SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — Elections for Town Council and Mayor have unearthed deep divisions in this small beach town, and it’s unclear how, or if, the community will mend after the results are tallied in May.

Sullivan’s is a roughly 3-mile-long barrier island just east of Charleston. It faces the challenges of many beach towns in South Carolina: how to deal with heavy summer traffic; how to pay for the public services beach visitors use; and how to handle flooding and rising tides. These issues are all hot topics in the campaign.

But in other ways, it stands apart. It’s mostly residential, with strict limits on short-term rentals. Candidates and residents alike described a place where children ride to school unattended on bicycles and neighbors bump into each other at oyster roasts.

It’s the island’s unique maritime forest, however, that led to a particular tension in this election cycle. The town settled a decadelong lawsuit last year over how to manage the land, in a 4-3 vote that approved more cutting than had ever been on the table before.

The vote left some conservationists on the island incensed, others frustrated by how the vote happened and some ready to put the long legal tussle to bed and move on.

Students from Sullivan’s Island Elementary School cross Middle Street as diners fill outdoor seating at restaurants during the afternoon on of April 16, 2021, on Sullivan’s Island. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The decision hangs over the contest for three council seats and the mayor’s post. How the candidates land on that choice is a proxy, for some, on what direction the community is headed. And whoever wins, the next leaders of the town will guide a community that’s still sore, in many places, over the choice.

Resident Larry Kobrovsky, for example, said it’s “an existential election for our island. … Future generations would never forgive us for destroying this gift we’ve been given from nature.” Kobrovsky still hopes the cutting is minimized or stopped.

But resident Allison Bourland lives next to the forest and is in favor of thinning it to allow breezes through. She hopes the temperature lowers after people see the actual results of the cutting this fall. Anger may pass if the result is not as extensive as some fear.

The issue, she said, has made for some tense social situations.

“I don’t like going into the grocery store and feeling like, oh, ‘How do I speak to this person who’s my neighbor?'” she said. “I don’t like the enemy feeling.”

Houses face the beachfront on Pettigrew Street on April 16, 2021, on Sullivan’s Island. Some areas of the island’s accreted land, like this stretch, are not mature forest. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Seeding a cycle

Candidates can put political signs in their neighbors’ yards just two weeks before the May 4 vote. But the seeds of this race were sown as long ago as October, when the council voted narrowly to settle the 2010 lawsuit over the maritime forest.

The island has grown outward into the Atlantic for decades as sand collects on the beachfront side, a rarity in South Carolina. The sediment settles there because of jetties that keep the mouth of Charleston Harbor open to ship navigation.

The town put that land into a trust three decades ago. But as forest grew on it, some homeowners next to it complained of mosquitos, animal pests, a fire hazard and a thicket that blocked sea breezes. The lawsuit aimed for more cutting to eliminate these factors, rather than leaving the land it to its own devices.

At the same time, a vocal group of conservationists on the island argued nature should take its course. They say the forest provides a natural sanctuary for the whole island and a buffer against potential hurricane surge.

Attempts to come up with a management plan regularly spurred packed-house meetings, before the coronavirus pandemic.

The agreement to which the town is now bound came from a private legal mediation. A draft was published online on a Tuesday evening, and presented for an up-or-down vote by council the following Friday morning, via Zoom.

In the mayor’s race, incumbent Pat O’Neil voted in the minority against the settlement; Councilman Chauncey Clark, who is challenging O’Neil, voted for it.

Clark did not agree to a phone interview, but said via email it “was my duty to the town to negotiate the best deal we could get and put this divisive issue to rest. It’s time to stop single-issue politics and focus on managing and maintaining our town.”

The Sullivan’s Island lighthouse and the tops of oceanfront homes can be seen from behind the maritime forest on April 16, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

O’Neil said the agreement was a “terrible outcome,” but admits there’s little to do about it. The settlement bars town officials from hindering it as state and federal environmental regulators review the forest-thinning plan.

A line on O’Neil’s campaign website even caught the eye of the plaintiff’s attorney: “We must elect people who will fight to protect (this) gift of God and the (Army) Corps of Engineers.”

The line was a reference to the fact that the Corps built the jetties that make the sand pile up. But O’Neil ended up complying with a demand to delete the line, which was emailed to the town’s attorneys earlier this April.

O’Neil said that the way to move forward is to make the process for future big decisions more deliberative and transparent. “What you have to do as a leader is make sure nothing like that ever happens again, on whatever the next issue is,” he said.

In the Town Council race, two candidates say the settlement was the right move — Tim Reese, an incumbent who voted for it, and Kevin Pennington, a retiree who has lived on the island since 2010.

Reese, who did not participate in a phone interview, said at an April 13 forum, “We settled it … it’s time to move on, it is not as draconian as people think, study the issues, please.”

Pennington also responded to an interview request via email and wrote that “the next council should fully support the outcome of this process and play their role in fulfilling the Town’s obligations in a straightforward, timely manner.”

The remaining three candidates oppose the settlement.

Justin Novak, an attorney running for council, said it’s stoked distrust among residents and that the town needs to do a better job of soliciting residents’ opinions.

Candidate Gary Visser, former chair of the town’s Planning Commission, also said that “on the large, very very important issues, the residents should have been consulted more.”

Scott Millimet, who also is running for a seat, said he’s not categorically against forest management, but “the process was very flawed” as the town approved the agreement, and he didn’t think it reflected the will of most voters.

Holes created by roadside parking are filled in by crews from the S.C. Department of Transportation on April 16, 2021, on Sullivan’s Island. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Moving forward

The forest is not the only issue in the race. There’s also a debate over whether to start charging for parking on the island; some say a fee would be unwelcoming to visitors and inconvenient to residents, and others argue the town needs more revenue to pay for the costs beachgoers bring.

But no other issue has proved as divisive as the forest settlement. As Clark said in a recent event, “It has torn the island in two.”

Few had answers on how to improve the situation. 

Islander Pat Votava, who is supporting O’Neil, Novak, Visser and Millimet, said she felt that the people who approved the settlement, or who supported it, had forced the decision through without regard to those who staunchly opposed it, like her. 

“They’re saying, ‘Now that we’ve gotten what we want, we should move on,'” Votava said. “If the vote had been different, they would not be moving on.”

Votava worried that the handling of the settlement was one sign that the sense of community she had enjoyed for years on the island was starting to fall apart. She cited one example from the April 13 candidates’ forum. Reese and Pennington called Millimet hypocritical for opposing the settlement because he’d previously gotten a permit to cut down a tree in his own yard. (Millimet countered that he’d actually cut two trees, saying one was diseased and the other could have fallen on his home, and that he later planted more.)

Things felt different now, Votava said, than days when the town would come together for events like a potluck on the beach that heralded the opening of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

“Maybe those kinds of things again — maybe that’s how we come back together,” she said. “But everybody’s got to want it, and I don’t know who it matters to anymore, that sense of community.”

Visitors stroll along the shore near Station 16 on April 16, 2021, on Sullivan’s Island. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Bourland is voting for an opposite slate: Clark, Reese and Pennington. She said all the men cared deeply about a diverse array of issues on the island, not just the forest, and were well-versed on the workings of the town. She had not decided yet on a third candidate for Town Council. 

She argued that there may be more benefits to the thinning than just for people who live next to the thicket — it could make the land easier to traverse for visitors, for example, and more pleasant with more breezes coming through. 

But Bourland also worried that the tone of conversation on the island was becoming too divisive. When she moved there two decades ago, she made friends with fellow islanders faster than in any place she’d lived before, Bourland said. The social connections are not as easy these days. 

“Whenever you say that you live on Atlantic Avenue, (next to the forest), it’s like a lightning rod,” Bourland said. “A lot of assumptions can be made that I just want a view, and I don’t care about the environment. And that’s not the case.”

The two women agreed on one point, however: It was unlikely that the atmosphere on Sullivan’s would calm down until after the May 4 vote.