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Sandy Island: Improved access will raise new issues

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

State and local officials trying to determine the best way to improve transportation to Sandy Island are focused on the needs of island residents.

But any improvements would make travel to the island easier for others as well.

Located between the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers, the island is accessible only by boat. The island’s isolation has made it a point of interest for tourists, as well as mainland residents, but lack of access has kept it off limits to many.

A ferry would change that.

“If we’re going to expand service and if a member of the public, whose tax dollars are being used to pay for that service, wants to get on the ferry, they can do it,” said Myers Rollins Jr., general manager of Coast Regional Transit Authority, one of the groups studying possibilities for public transportation to the island.

That’s not a deterrent for island residents, said the Rev. George Weathers, a leader of the Sandy Island community.

“People say that people on the island don’t like to see visitors over there, but that’s not the case,” he said. “That was true during the old days, but this new generation, they’re different. They don’t mind visitors.

“People often travel through and they don’t bother no one,” Weathers said. “They come and they’re polite, and the people on the island will go and talk with them.”

The general store on the island near the existing community dock would benefit from increased traffic, he added.

Island residents aren’t the only property owners to be considered, however.

The state Department of Transportation owns 9,000 of the 12,000 acres on Sandy Island. That property is managed by The Nature Conservancy as a nature preserve.

Nearly 3,000 acres are owned by Brookgreen Gardens.

DOT purchased its portion of the island in 1996 to use a mitigation for wetlands destroyed by construction of the Carolina Bays Parkway and other projects.

The conservancy encourages the public to enjoy the property during daylight hours, but “there are a multitude of legal documents” governing the land, said Mark Robertson, executive director of the conservancy’s South Carolina chapter.

“When the agreement was set up and the mitigation bank was established, a number of state and federal agencies had to sign agreements to guarantee the land would be protected,” Robertson said.

Horseback riding and bicycling are among prohibited activities, according to the conservancy. So are picking flowers, berries and mushrooms, and taking shells, rocks or other parts of the landscape; camping, fires or cookouts; and feeding the wildlife.

Vehicles are prohibited, except on existing roads or for educational and scientific purposes, Robertson said.

Residents of the island have free use of the roads that go through the property, according to Robertson, and are aware of the rules outlined for the property.

If a ferry system is established and more people start visiting the island, the conservancy would need to find ways to make sure visitors are aware of the restrictions, he said, but he added that it’s too early to start thinking about those issues.

Without knowing what kind of service would be established or what the terms would be, any plans made or talk about effects on the property would be speculative, he said.

Since the conservancy started managing DOT land on Sandy Island, it has tried to be a good neighbor to the residents, Robertson said. That includes supporting a safer means of transportation.

“I’m not sure whether a car ferry is the right answer or not,” he said, but “clearly something has to be done to make sure they have the ability to get across the river safely and soundly.”

In addition to holding land on the island, Brookgreen Gardens owns the property surrounding Sandy Island Landing on the mainland.

County Council members have expressed concern about issues that may arise with Brookgreen over the canal that leads from the landing to the Waccamaw River. Because of its shallow depth and narrow width, the canal have to be dredged or bridged to accommodate a car ferry.

Bob Jewell, president of Brookgreen Gardens said he hasn’t been approached by anyone about issues over transportation to Sandy Island.

“We would try to help however we could,” Jewell said. “We’re generally very positive about trying to help the residents of Sandy Island and we would try not to be an obstacle.”

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