Sunday, March 27, 2016 Blog

Population growth. Oil and virtuous cycles. Terrapins and salt marsh.

by Andy Hollis


With the presidential primaries in full swing, this week brought the usual fare of annoying, discouraging and alarming news. One could put David Slade’s coastal population growth article in the Post and Courier in the last category. All David needed to do was dust off the article he wrote last year and change the dates. (Being an excellent journalist, he didn’t.)

In 2015, the three fastest growing metro areas on the Atlantic Coast were Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Beaufort/Hilton Head — again — for the third year in a row. Charleston County Council Chair, Elliott Summey, put is well. “… quality of life is being threatened now in a way that we, as a community, have never seen. We are already experiencing negative impacts of poorly planned growth, especially in the transportation arena. We all need to come together to create a regional vision for transportation that we can implement quickly and cost effectively.”

The Post and Courier’s editorial staff agree, but they remind us that we have reason to be optimistic. They cite the fact that the Lowcountry is “almost completely encircled by a band of green space… much of it protected from future development. That important feature is the result of the dedication of local environmental groups and landowners who value the area’s unparalleled natural beauty… And Charleston County has in place an important urban growth boundary, which directs building inside of it and mandates that land outside of it remains rural.” (I should note that Beaufort County also has an urban growth boundary, although it is somewhat weaker than Charleston’s.)

This is truly a remarkable achievement. (The most notable recent addition to the greenbelt is the permanent protection this year of 53,000 acres — three quarters of WestRock’s East Edisto property — on the southwest side of the Berkeley/Charleston/Dorchester region.) The bottom line is that we can protect the Lowcountry, but it will take hard work to prevent rapid population expansion from destroying the region’s beauty and quality of life. And, as the P and C notes, “Environmentalists can’t do it all.” The business community and elected officials along the coast will have to step up.

Why should we expect that to happen? Because it already did, at least with elected officials, in the struggle to stop offshore oil drilling. (I’m convinced the business community will get there too.)

The Island Packet explains the importance of the decision by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to remove the Atlantic states from the oil leasing agenda. Citizens organized, more than 100 city and town councils, including every coastal city and town in South Carolina, resolved against drilling, and the feds listened.

Managing growth is not as straightforward as persuading a federal agency to drop a dangerous drilling proposal (which was anything but a cake walk). It’s a full-time, on-going proposition, but it can produce extraordinary results, just as the past 25 years of effort on the greenbelt has. That work and the optimism it has engendered has established a virtuous cycle, which we have every reason to believe will produce the energy necessary to deal with unprecedented growth.

On a final note, Bo Petersen, with the Post and Courier, writes about another long term effort — this one to understand better one especially charismatic coastal resident and its critical relationship to the larger aquatic environment. The diamondback terrapin is familiar to anybody who regularly fishes or boats in tidal creeks and rivers. Although the terrapin rarely appears in his or her full spender, you will eventually spot a nose just above the surface of the water if you pay attention.

It turns out that terrapins eat periwinkle snails, which eat salt marsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora. So when marsh grass dies unexpectedly, it’s occasionally because of a population explosion of periwinkles. (Speaking of rapid population growth…) And the population explosion is likely to be a result of too few terrapins.

So… If Captain Sam’s Spit, a favorite nesting area for terrapins, is bulkheaded and developed, we will have the developers of Kiawah to thank for the loss of salt marsh. But I’ll leave that update for next week.


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