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Environment: Sandy Island touted as model for wetlands mitigation

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

With the transfer of ownership of more than 9,000 acres of undeveloped land on Sandy Island last week, the S.C. Department of Transportation concluded a deal it struck more than 14 years ago.

The property, managed since 1996 by The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina, is now also owned by the organization.

But the end of the deal shouldn’t be the end of the story, said Secretary of Transportation H.B. “Buck” Limehouse Jr.

“It should be the beginning. This is a great story and it should be repeated in other places,” he said Friday during a ceremony at the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge to commemorate the land’s change of hands.

DOT purchased the natural areas of the island for $10 million in 1996 as a wetlands mitigation bank to allow construction to begin on highway projects along the coast, including the Conway Bypass and Carolina Bays Parkway. When road projects disturb wetlands, anywhere from 2 to 5 acres of wetlands must be preserved for each acre that is impacted, according to DOT officials.

In the past, DOT looked for small parcels it could purchase piecemeal for mitigation, but “Sandy Island changed all that,” and the agency started looking for larger projects, said Bob Perry, director of the Office of Environmental Programs at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The department was one of eight state and federal agencies that worked together for the protection of Sandy Island.

With a mitigation bank the size of the Sandy Island tract, highway projects advanced at an accelerated rate, saving taxpayers more than $53 million, but more importantly that part of Sandy Island was forever protected, said Mark Robertson, the conservancy’s executive director.

“Sandy Island has been called a crown jewel, and it is, but it’s more than that, too,” he said, launching into a description of its many valuable natural resources. The island is home to longleaf pine forests, bald cypress-tupelo swampland and habitats for species such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Isaac Pyatt, a Sandy Island native and Georgetown County’s chief magistrate, attended the ceremony and said he was happy to see the land safe from development.

“I think it will put the islanders at rest to know it won’t be taken over by tourists, golf courses and hotels,” he said.

Island resident Mary Pyatt was also glad to see the land preserved, but another announcement made during the ceremony had her concerned.

Limehouse told the crowd that a donor has agreed to transport a ferry acquired by DOT from Alabama to Georgetown County. The ferry is expected to be used to provide transportation for Sandy Island residents.

Pyatt said she has no objection to the ferry, but she worries it will open the community up to outsiders who will change the way of life there. Island residents want a voice concerning who comes and goes.

“Right now, it’s quiet there. There are no drugs, no crime, no rapes,” she said.

She doesn’t want to see that change.

The island is accessible only by boat and residents have been asking for a ferry for decades.

Their pleas were given urgency in February 2009, when three island residents drowned on their way home to the island. They were traveling at night in a storm when their boat started taking on water.

S.C. Rep. Carl Anderson said he has “great hope” a ferry will be operational at Sandy Island soon. He went to Howard High School with one of the victims of the Sandy Island boat accident, Lou Ann Robinson, and said he is passionate about getting a safer means of transportation for island residents.

Sarah Hartman, the Nature Conservancy’s director of land protection, said the organization hasn’t been involved in the discussion about a ferry, but it has no concerns about the effects of a ferry on its ability to protect the land.

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