Persuasive case to limit docks

Published on 11/13/02

The Post and Courier Editorial

Waterfront property owners understandably enjoy having their own docks, and understandably resent being told they shouldn't build them — especially by other residents who already have private docks of their own. But the proliferation of docks in the Lowcountry demands prudent consideration of alternatives to minimize their impact while still giving residents ready access to our waterways.

Jason Hardin reported in last Friday's Post and Courier that dozens of James Island residents attended a Thursday night S.C. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management public hearing to oppose the proposed construction of 27 docks on James Island's Parrot Point property. The developers of a new subdivision on that land, Belle Terre, are seeking a permit from OCRM to build those docks — one per lot.

Among those urging OCRM to deny that permit was James Island Mayor Mary Clark, who argued that 50 years ago, while docks in the island's creeks were far fewer, shrimp and oysters were far more plentiful. Local anglers expressed similar concerns about the placement of 27 new docks on a relatively small creek.

OCRM Director Chris Brooks told us Tuesday that waterfront development inevitably imposes environmental stresses on our marshlands and waterways, including runoff from "upland" property, docks' "marsh shading" and boats' "fuel and exhaust problems" and "bank erosion." Boat propellers in shallow creeks disrupt the breeding grounds for marine life.

But OCRM can't abruptly decree that we've reached our dock limit and deny all new permits on that basis. The agency must fairly review permit requests under state regulations, and must stand on firm legal ground in anticipation of possible court challenges. And as Mr. Brooks told us, the Belle Terre developers' permit application at least gives the agency a comprehensive overview to consider: "We can better address all the impacts up front. Otherwise, you'd have 27 separate permit applications from the property owners."

Mr. Brooks said OCRM is trying to "persuade" the developers to lower the number of docks: "We'll work hard to encourage joint-use docks or community docks."

Meanwhile, the Belle Terre dock-permit applications are "not a quick decision" for OCRM, said Mr. Brooks, who added: "It's as controversial a dock master plan as we've seen in the past few years."

The Belle Terre controversy began long before the dock-permit application was filed when St. James Episcopal Church, despite the protests of many James Island residents (including some congregation members), sold the Parrot Point property to a Texas developer.

But Belle Terre isn't the only neighborhood where dock construction has become a contentious issue. The Lowcountry coastal dock boom hasn't just transformed our marshlands and waterways, it's transformed many local attitudes, raising concerns that we risk spoiling the very natural blessings that waterfront residents cherish.

Joint-use docks with room for boats or community docks with little or no room for boats are obvious ways to minimize development's toll on nature. Many waterfront developments have wisely adopted such alternatives, recognizing that one dock per lot would mean too many docks along our rapidly growing coast.

Belle Terre's developers can take a major step toward becoming better neighbors by following that responsible lead.