By Kristin Hackler
On June 10, the department of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) held a much-anticipated public hearing on Kiawah Development Partner’s request for a Stormwater permit which would allow for a 340 foot corrugated steel bulkhead at the neck of Captain Sam’s Spit along the Kiawah River. The bulkhead would require four and a half foot long sheets of steel to be driven 35 feet into the bed of the river and, if granted, the permit would also allow for a roughly 900 foot service road to be built extending from the end of Beachwalker Drive to service the bulkhead.
Greg Whal, the Stormwater Project Manager for the OCRM, opened the public hearing with a brief description of the project, reiterating that the hearing was not a question and answer session: speakers were allowed to talk for up to five minutes and all comments would be submitted to the OCRM for consideration before the department made its decision. Written comments, he noted, would be accepted until June 25, 2009.
With that, he opened the floor to the room of approximately 70 island residents, almost a third of which had arrived with the intention of speaking. However, as the evening progressed, more and more chose not to speak as others voiced their own sentiments, with much of the discussion circling around three major issues: the protection of wildlife, the shifting nature of the land itself and the advantages to keeping the land as a public park.
The discussion of Captain Sam’s touched an emotional chord in several of the speakers, who were forced to wipe away unintentional tears as they explained the importance of the small bit of land; not only to themselves, but to their children, and grandchildren, and so on. “I’m not thinking about me,” said Johns Island resident Robert Deland, “I’m thinking about my grandchildren. Captain Sam’s is the last darned stretch on the whole darned island that’s untouched, and you can’t change it back.”
Sarah Latshaw, speaking as a concerned citizen, spoke about her work at the College of Charleston in studying habitat restoration and what the steel wall’s effect would have on “this critical habitat”. She began by reading a line from Coastal Geologist Miles Hayes, who was quoted by the Post and Courier in 2006 as saying that Captain Sam’s is “… one of the most unstable places on the east coast”. The definition “critical area”, which Captain Sam’s is defined as under the SC Code of Law, explains that, “Critical areas by their nature are dynamic and subject to change over time.” Likewise, she noted, SC Code 48-39-250 -(5) states that, “The use of armoring in the form of hard erosion control devices such as seawalls, bulkheads, and rip-rap to protect erosion-threatened structures adjacent to the beach has not proven effective … In reality, these hard structures, in many instances, have increased the vulnerability of beachfront property to damage from wind and waves while contributing to the deterioration and loss of the dry sand beach which is so important to the tourism industry.” Latshaw also addressed the effect on the federally threatened and endangered Piping Plover, as well as the locally endangered “SC species of concern” diamondback terrapin, noting that a study performed in the early 1990s listed “The stretch of beach along the Kiawah River, the same area proposed for the revetment and sheet pile project, to be the main nesting site for this already declining species.”
Peter Mugglestone, the vice president the Friends of Kiawah River and a former Engineering professor at Cambridge, even went to far as to write out the Navier-Stokes equation, which is used to show the flow of most common fluids. The statement, Mugglestone explained, that the revetment will have no effect either upstream or downstream, goes against Newton’s second law: force equals mass times acceleration. Any change in the position of the sand will change the whole flow pattern. “For example, look at a drop of water as it runs down your windshield,” said Mugglestone. “One tiny little flaw on the glass causes the water stream to go wildly out of control.” The Kiawah River has changed many times over the past, he said, but those changes were bound by history. “The KDP is trying to change history,” he said, “and everyone down river will experience the effect.”
Kiawah Island property owner Art Morganstern threw in his two cents, asking the OCRM to deny the permit and noting that he had bought land on Kiawah because of its natural environment. The construction, he averred, would interfere with wildlife in the area, and he remarked that he had evidence that Captain Sam’s Spit is part of the habitat of a bobcat. He also asked how the developers would return the land “unchanged” if they were driving piles 35 feet deep into the river bed. “I’d like to ask the developer to reconsider the plan,” he said. “It’s not enough to talk about green space; you have walk the walk.”
Interest in the revetment even reached the younger generation, as sixteen year old Kira Westerberg took a turn at the podium, pointing out that she went on a field trip with Sidi Limehouse to Captain Sam’s and learned more than she ever thought she would in that brief afternoon. “I wondered why people would put up houses that would hurt animals,” she said, “They’re happy in their environment and I don’t think they should develop the Spit.”
“I’m especially concerned about the terrapins,” said Sidi Limehouse of Rosebank Farms. “Used to be thousands of them in the creeks and we would eat them every Sunday. There were so many that we would ship barrels of them to New York. But now, there’s not place for them to nest.” He explained that the diamondback terrapin returns to the same site month after month to nest, and the sheet pile project would be built on top of some of the densest nesting areas along the river. “I urge you to deny this permit. Not for me or anyone in this room – except maybe that little girl. I urge you to deny this permit.”
In defense of the project, however, were Mayor Wert of the Town of Kiawah Island, and Al Burnaford, who spoke as a citizen during the comment period. The Mayor kept his comments brief, stating that the Town of Kiawah supports the sheet pile project and application. Burnaford, after noting that he was not speaking as an elected official at the meeting, urged attendees to look at what a wonderful job Kiawah Development Partners have done with the island to date. He pointed out that they had protected the terrapins and Piping Plover, and that “they, nor we, will do anything to effect the bobcats, the Piping Plover, etc.” The KDP has been very eco-sensitive, he said, and “as a resident of Kiawah Island, I strongly support it.”
Comments were taken on the project until June 25, at which time the OCRM will compile all of the comments and make a decision.