By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
Flags at half-staff on the approach to town hall cast a shadow on brilliant weather for Seabrook’s town council (SITC) meeting on March 28th. Mayor Ciancio confirmed the news struck at Seabrook’s heart, and announced the passing of former mayor Terry Ahern the previous weekend. Shoulders sagged as the news hit home, but everyone welcomed the chance to celebrate the Seabrook legend.
Terrence Ahern retired from the oil and gas industry before moving to the island
and getting involved with the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association (SIPOA). He worked on a variety of SIPOA committees, ultimately serving as both vice president and then president of the board of directors. He told The Island Connection in mid-2009, his involvement with the community made him a good candidate for town council, “I helped with the surveys and found that people really like living in a gated community because they feel safe. So my primary objective is to continue to have our gate system and [keep] our island secure.”
Ahern won election to Seabrook’s town council later in 2009. Two years later, he was appointed mayor pro tem, and was elected mayor in 2013 for his third consecutive tour on the legislative body.
Through all his successes, Ahern always put Seabrook voters first, even when an issue like off-shore drilling threatened a conflict with his personal experience.
The Obama administration shocked coastal communities early in 2015, floating the idea of allowing oil exploration along the east coast. Reaction from environmental groups like the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP)( seehttp://bit.ly/2obbCSE) was lightning fast. SCELP helped mobilize a group called “No Drill SC” with the goal of convincing every town council along the coast to sign a letter (or write one of their own) objecting to the idea of drilling in the Atlantic. Seabrook was no exception by the spring of 2015.
Ahern told the Island Connection “if I had been voting my personal views on this, I would never have supported it.”
However, Ahern also mentioned a SIPOA survey which suggested strong support for council’s signature on the letter to denounce off-shore drilling. He respectfully let debate run its course, and joined in a unanimous vote alongside colleagues and constituents, like the statesman he was. “He approached his illnesses the same way he approached all other issues – with character and determination. Terry left his mark on our community and will be missed,” said Mayor Ciancio.
The meeting got underway with financials for the month of February. They weren’t quite as spectacular as the previous month’s $450,000 surplus, but were enough to keep the streak of positive reports alive.
Expectations were exceeded by $20,000 in additional revenue, and another $20,000+ of expenses saved. However, it was the year-to-date expense category that shone the brightest. Seabrook spent $106,000 less than expected. The mayor attributed the savings to insurance premiums and similar costs which will eventually come for their pound of Seabrook, and the savings will level off but still, right?
Council member John Gregg informed attendees the club’s long range planning committee met during the month of March. Recent elections made for a change in management, which is now determined to focus members attention on the 2017 strategic plan. The new team will be taking a closer look at using shorter surveys with rewards for participation in an attempt to get more meaningful results.
The public safety committee met on March 13th, said Gregg. The hot topic from last month; “establishing priorities for clearing roads in the event of disaster” was discussed again, and again participants felt comfortable starting with roads critical to the operation of the utility. Gregg also said the number of action items from January’s disaster recovery team exercise resulted in several action items which will be discussed in a meeting to be scheduled for April.
Gregg then provided an update on reimbursement for Matthew damage from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Overtime charges associated with debris removal were omitted from Seabrook’s original estimates, and this means additional worksheets. He said the previous worksheets have been received and distributed to council including close to $95,000 in fund requests. He cautioned that the back and forth between FEMA and Seabrook was not an indication of approval, but rather part of an ongoing process with the ultimate grant being based on the request.
Gregg also announced Seabrook would be hosting disaster awareness day for the third consecutive year, now scheduled for June 15th at the SIC clubhouse. He thanked the Island Connection for exacting a $1,500,000 return from Kiawah on a $6,000 investment by Seabrook. This year’s installment will feature Seabrook’s customary efficiency, plenty of door prizes, raffles, and, AND FREE LUNCH said Gregg, confirming his intent to say it in all capital letters.
Council member John Wells said the accommodations tax committee would meet in May, before speaking about roads outside the gate. He said Seabrook attorney Mr. Brown was still engaged in checking on easements associated with the project, and now expects the process to extend beyond the original “end of March” target.
The Department of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management has officially been engaged to assess which flapper gates need repairs and to get associated permits, Wells concluded.
Council member Skip Crane reported an expected completion date in May for the new gatehouse, after meeting with the new SIPOA board for the first time since their election. He also noted quite a bit of interest in the revised Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps and he is angling for a public meeting to be held on Seabrook.
FEMA flood zone designations are revised based on new, more accurate information. The federal agency uses these maps to determine the amount property owners in flood prone areas pay for flood insurance. Three public meetings were held in March but the locations were a bit of hike for Seabrook residents. “There were a lot of calls [questions] from Seabrook and FEMA representatives seem amenable to holding another meeting here,” said Crane.
Mayor Ron Ciancio revised last month’s report on two bills before the state legislature. The bills [H.3650 & H.3651, he said] would effectively allow the state toco-opt collection of licensing fees currently gathered by the town. Seabrook could lose as much as $125,000 in revenues, which would accrue to the state instead, if SC takes over administration of the program.
However, the bills have been referred back to committee, said the mayor, saving Seabrook’s 2017 budget, at least for now.
The mayor also spent a moment discussing the Conservation Bank (CB). Formed in 2002, the CB has saved 300,000 acres in 42 SC counties. Their efforts have improved water quality, preserved wildlife habitat and protected historic sites including; Middleton Plantation, Morris Island, and Angel Oak.
The CB, however, will go “bankrupt” in 2018 without re-authorization. The mayor asked council to join him and the Johns Island Task Force to endorse Sen. George “Chip” Campsen’s S.219, designed to rejuvenate the CB. The vote was unanimous
The mayor concluded his remarks by observing Seabrook is entitled to issue up to $4,500,000.00 in bonds in the event a disaster demands extra funding. However, the existing ordinance may require further action to comply with recent comments made by the attorney general.
Town administrator Randy Pierce reported issues with the town’s new radios have been worked out. He also thanked the Seabrook Island Club for their assistance in removing parts of a shrimp boat which washed up on Seabrook’s beach.
Tim Morawski said the utility was still haunted by their new billing system and had no real financials to report. He expects one more round of shortened billing cycles will be employed to rectify the problem, and now thinks the issue will be resolved before summer.
The sole piece of legislation on the agenda was a temporary use permit. The application authorizes tents, banners, fishing, and live music in conjunction Bohicket’s annual Billfish Tournament from May 9-14.
Seabrook resident Alison Blaky brought a safety issue to the attention of council during citizen’s comments. She said there was a shark hole near the very popular boardwalk #9 which enticed people to fish there. The part she couldn’t understand was why people were fishing there without tending their lines. She was extremely confident her walks would be more pleasant absent the threat of decapitation by a fishing line she couldn’t see, and hoped council would take action.
The mayor was quick to respond, saying past councils had resisted the temptation to legislate common sense two years ago [or the lack thereof – he and Blaky said in almost perfect unison], but he seemed very concerned. He added this summer’s beach patrol budget is triple past levels, and hoped that would help while council considers what to do about a problem they thought long resolved. One possibility could require people to be within reach of their gear. There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned.