Sullivan’s Island Lawyer Says Forest Thinning Agreement “Inapplicable” in Letter | SC Climate and Environment news


SULLIVAN’S ISLAND – A lawyer hired by the seaside town this week questioned a controversial legal deal, reached last year, to thin out the trees in the island’s maritime forest.

The forest has been the center of controversy for years, as sand has accumulated along parts of the beach and a forest has grown at the top. A vocal group on the island argues that much of the land should be left on its own, to develop naturally. But some homeowners nearby have protested the risk of wildfires, pests and the city’s mismanagement.

A group of those landowners filed the 2010 lawsuit that culminated in last year’s settlement, which devoted far more cuts than Sullivan had ever allowed before on this protected land.

But William Wilkins, a Greenville-based attorney who spent decades as a federal judge, said in a November 30 letter that “the settlement agreement is unenforceable in law or in contract.” The problems, he writes, are that the document restricted the legislative powers and the ability to do business of city council.

Wilkins also wrote that his analysis does not guarantee a result if the city brings the case back to court. He was hired in October, after significant pressure from people wanting the city to challenge the settlement.

Mayor Pat O’Neil, who opposed the settlement, said in an interview that the conclusion was “very unequivocal, very simple and very clear.”

“We’ll all have to digest it, and I’m sure we’ll meet in a (closed-door) session on this in the very near future,” he said.

But Jamie Hood, the attorney for people the city settled with last year, strongly contradicted Wilkins’ findings.

“Not a single case cited in this document involved a city that entered into a settlement agreement to end a lawsuit, then turned around and brought an action asking a court to exonerate it from ‘do what she agreed to,’ Hood wrote in an email to The Post and Courier. “(We) have looked at this very issue and carefully tailored the agreement to be a binding and enforceable agreement. “

Among the issues Wilkins raised included language that could require forest clearing in perpetuity, cutting plans that go beyond a 2005 ordinance limiting forest pruning, and the requirement that the city fund a portion. Works. These problems, he writes, prevent the city from developing its own forest policies in the future.

Whether the deal unfairly binds the council was raised earlier this year by attorney Ross Appel, who was hired by Sullivan’s Island for All, a group that wants to stop the cut.

“They see it as a complete and utter justification for what they’ve been saying from the start,” Appel said.

Typically, a group of lawmakers cannot set rules that stop the actions of future elected officials, if an election ushers new faces. Indeed, that same scenario happened this year: the October 2020 settlement paved the way for a decisive election on Sullivan Island in May, in which council members who backed the agreement were rejected and the candidates who said they were opposed were elected.

Wilkins also said the city could ask the court to review the settlement for enforceability, ask the court to overturn it entirely or wait for plaintiffs to force them to follow it, and then counter this action. .

It’s unclear when counsel might discuss the letter’s arguments and the legal options it offers. The item is not on the agenda for an upcoming board workshop on December 6, and the agenda for this month’s regular meeting, December 21, has yet to be set. .

But it could happen within a month, city administrator Andy Benke said.

Regardless of when the case arises, those who have sought to stop tree thinning are now saying city council has no choice but to act.

“They acted with caution (before the letter) and I respect that,” said Larry Kobrovsky, a forest protection activist. “Now they have what they need, from the best legal source possible.”

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Contact Chloé Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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