No Cutting

I once cut in line. It didn’t work out as I had expected and surely affected more people than I would ever have imagined. So, let me get right to the point. There is no question as to whether the sand spit, which is known as Pine Island Beach, should be nourished. Absolutely it should. The pertinent questions are these: Who should pay for the costs associated with doing so, and how should that process work? To answer the questions, it’s important to evaluate the matter from its historical, factual and procedural perspectives.

Historically, the natural erosion of the adjacent Port Royal Sound bluff was a sand source for Pine Island. But, almost 40 years ago, in an effort to preserve both the Dolphin Head Recreational Area and nearby homes, the Hilton Head Plantation Property Owners Association armored the bluff. Engineering experts agreed that rapid erosion should be anticipated at the point where the armoring terminates. The plan to address this erosion was to scrape sand from an area nearer to Ribaut Island and use it to re-nourish Pine Island. Unfortunately, a resident of Ribaut Island successfully sued to block the issuance of a permit necessary for doing so, which necessitated the implementation of the drastically more expensive alternative of trucking in sand for the nourishment efforts. (As a developer who has both paid for dirt to be delivered and gained from providing it to others, I can tell you that it is most economical to minimize the import and export of soil or sand onto our construction sites, because its removal, trucking and placement are quite costly.)  It’s upon this historical backdrop of the Pine Island Beach erosion where we must begin to discuss recent developments.

Factually, it is indeed true that the Town of Hilton Head Island is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure associated with the storm water management system in Hilton Head Plantation pursuant to a publicly recorded agreement between the town and the HHPPOA, dated July 18, 2013. However, according to the terms of the agreement, the HHPPOA specifically acknowledges that the town doesn’t guarantee or insure that property within Hilton Head Plantation will be free of events of flooding or erosion; the town represents and warrants that same thing. Importantly, the structures the town maintains are coded red on an exhibit to the agreement. This exhibit indicates that neither Pine Island, the marsh behind it, Ribaut Island or the armored bluff are part of the infrastructure for which the town is factually responsible to maintain.

A renewed discussion of this topic occurred more than six months ago, when HHP management requested that the town dredge some sand over and above its own needs during its current re-nourishment project and provide it at cost to HHP for use on Pine Island. However, federal permit requirements limiting when re-nourishment efforts may occur prevented this arrangement. Discussions then switched to “stockpiling” sand elsewhere, with enormous and negative implications for each area considered for the sand accumulation. Finally, at the June 21, 2016 Town Council meeting, the issue switched yet again with your Town Council considering whether or not the town should make a contribution toward nourishing Pine Island in order to “mitigate any potential damage to its storm water system from a potential storm surge overwhelming Pine Island.”

Procedurally, the process for vetting the matter was not scientific, engineering-based nor legal in nature. In the absence of a scientific process, we did not know that Pine Island is not part of the same sand sharing system that makes up “the beach,” as that term is defined in the town’s Municipal Code. In the absence of an engineering process, our town staff, most especially those who actively manage our public facilities and are compensated to represent the interests of the town, were neither involved in the preceding discussion nor consulted on the topic. When asked to give their on-the-spot opinion at the June 21 meeting, staff did not agree with the position put forth by HHP management, nor were they asked to investigate the matter. Finally, in the absence of a legal assessment, we did not obtain advice from our town attorney as to whether the HHPPOA has a contractual or legal obligation to maintain its property in such a way as to mitigate any potential damages to the town’s storm water infrastructure. Ultimately, the procedure resulted in obtaining five yes votes with no further process or review.

By now, you’ve surmised that I opposed providing $300,000 of public funds to HHP for Pine Island Beach. It is an amenity more than 70 percent of our citizens cannot use unless as an invited guest of a Hilton Head Plantation resident. It is located in a plantation without short-term, overnight (ATAX generating) lodging. But what particularly causes me pause is making Council decisions without proper and thorough processes. Why? Because it is immensely important to address funding requests and prioritize them within the framework of the requirements of the island as a whole and to clearly understand all of the implications and consequences of decisions. This is fiscal responsibility and fiduciary trust. We must be certain that all of our resources are used wisely including the human resources of our town staff, council committees, commissions and consultants. We cannot subject those citizens and constituencies with documentable current demands to a certain process while other “what might happen” requests (especially those which were predictable) cut to the front of the line. In this particular set of circumstances, which other project or projects are now delayed due to funding on Pine Island Beach? We don’t know! And that again suggests the absence of a proper process.

Also, it must be indisputable that citizens are treated equitably. Capital requirements for storm water infrastructure (particularly in native islander areas without adequate roads) appear to exceed our current availability of funds, which is part of the reason the recent fee for vehicles registered within the town limits was instituted.

Do we have the capital to pay for all similar requests for shoreline management projects absent a storm water fee increase? And, how will we determine the extent of similarity between projects and requests? Will we need to say “no” to some requests, thereby inequitably treating various citizen groups? Shouldn’t we assure the criteria for making such decisions includes proper assessments of all relevant history and facts as well as an investigation of the scientific, engineering and legal issues involved?

Yes, Pine Island Beach should be nourished and improved. But, along with it, our processes for distributing public funds and being excellent stewards of what we have should also be substantially upgraded. Because let’s face it, nobody enjoys being cut in line, and certainly nobody should feel they themselves must do so.

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