Kiawah Land Swap

Kiawah Partners and the Kiawah Island Community Association (KICA) negotiated a trade involving land on and around Kiawah Island. The proposal was to exchange a 4.6-acre oceanfront parcel, roughly adjacent to the Beachwalker County Park, for two fingers of land extending on the left of the entrance road into the marsh of the Kiawah River. These are the first two fingers of high land after you cross the bridge. This exchange also included a proposed option to buy another finger nearby.

The Kiawah Conservancy supported the swap because of their interest in protecting the entrance of Kiawah from visual blight they feel would result from the potential development of the two swap parcels.

Dick Fishburn, with the Conservancy, explained their rationale for supporting the swap. Dick emphasized that the Conservancy did not view this proposal as having anything to do with Captain Sams Spit. Rather, he noted, it was about protecting the entrance to the island along the Kiawah Parkway. Dick suggested that the League read the letter from Mayor Craig Weaver and frame our response in light of Mayor Weaver’s explanation of the Town’s supportive position.

The first point we would like to make is that we have the deepest respect for the work and time the Conservancy members have put into this proposal. However, after our conversation with Dick and other Conservancy members, after reviewing all available information on the proposal, and after reading Mayor Weaver’s letter, we let our members know that we felt confident that the swap was not necessarily in the best interest of the island or the environment.

The following is how we came to this conclusion:

  1. Lack of information.  Any land transaction, and certainly one of this magnitude, should be based on complete information about the nature and value of the property. In this case, KICA was transferring an asset worth millions of dollars to a private developer, in exchange for another asset worth, perhaps, similar millions of dollars. The first question that must be answered is whether the values of the properties are comparable. But KICA did not obtain an appraisal of either the oceanfront property or the marsh properties. This is a threshold question, and goes to not only the wisdom of the swap, but also to the fiduciary duty of KICA as a non-profit organization with stewardship responsibility for its assets.
  2. Importance of the oceanfront parcel.  This parcel represents one of a vanishingly small number of undeveloped oceanfront properties on the South Carolina coast. Properties of this sort are especially rare on developed and developing beaches. Its location near the county park makes it even more important from a public perspective. Further, it is strategically located at the neck, or the entrance, to Captain Sams Spit. As you know, the Conservation League, represented by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, has been in litigation over the future of the Spit for nearly a decade. If we win, and Kiawah Partners is unable to build the half-mile-long sheet pile wall along the back of the Spit, this property is positioned as a transitional site between the high-density development of the Timbers and the natural dune field of the Spit. If we lose, and the Spit is developed with 50 houses, this parcel will be an oasis surrounded by multifamily development and the single-family houses proposed on the Spit. Either way, it was a blessing that KICA had been in control of such a strategic and important piece of land and had the ability to keep it in its natural state.
  3. Threats to the oceanfront parcel.  As Mayor Weaver states in his letter, the property can be developed at 12 units per acre under the current zoning. We have been told that the DHEC/OCRM baseline prevents development on all but about 1.7 acres. But under Mayor Weaver’s analysis, about 20 units could be constructed on the property. In this ephemeral area around the neck of the Spit, this is a massive amount of development. The Timbers complex next door is probably a good point of comparison.
  4. Importance of the marsh entrance property.  There is no dispute that these types of habitats, marsh hammocks, or “chenieres,” are important. They are low formations and support maritime vegetation that is common on the sea islands and barrier islands. Strictly from a habitat perspective, there is vastly more of this sort of acreage on our coast than there are undeveloped dune fields, but we respect the Conservancy’s interest in protecting these areas.
  5. Threats to the entrance.  Virtually all of the land along the entrance road to Kiawah is developed except these fingers. The reason they have been last to develop is that, unlike the extensions of the fingers across the road, they do not have deep water access. They do, however, certainly have very nice views on the tips. Whether and when they will develop is unknown to anyone. While we do not believe the possibility of development should be ignored, Kiawah has done a very good job with design standards that generally shield houses from the road. In the event these properties were purchased for development, setbacks and buffers of the sort that protect the Kiawah Parkway elsewhere would preserve the beauty of the entrance. For this reason, we respectfully disagree with Mayor Weaver’s concern that “the entrance to our community (could be) transformed into a far different visual experience.”

In summary, based on everything we know, we did not believe the swap was a good deal for Kiawah residents and the environment. In monetary, aesthetic and natural resource terms, the value received is almost certainly dramatically less than the value given away.

We respect the point of view of the Conservancy and the Mayor, and we appreciate the thoughtful deliberation they have applied to this challenging question. But given the evidence, we came to a different conclusion than they did.

We believe the best possible outcome would have been for KICA to donate the oceanfront parcel to the Kiawah Conservancy, to be held in trust in perpetuity.  This would be a wonderful legacy for the Conservancy, and for the community it serves.

On September 22, the land swap passed, thus allowing the exchange of the parcels between Kiawah Partners and KICA. Before that, Tropical Storm Irma took place, bringing with her strong winds and rain that had significant impacts on some of these areas in question. You can check out those pictures here.

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