Marina’s plan to close public boat ramp faces opposition
The owner of the marina at Willbrook Plantation announced last month that it would close public access to a boat ramp that was a condition of a state permit to construct the facility. The groups that obtained the access say they plan to enforce the agreement reached with the developer 25 years ago.
“I intend to push back,” said Amy Armstrong, executive director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project. “We fully intend to enforce it.”
Developed by the Litchfield Co. as the Reserve Harbor Marina, the facility is now run by Safe Harbor, a Texas-based owner of over 100 marinas.
“We are excited to announce that the Safe Harbor Reserve Harbor Boat ramp will be CLOSED to Public Boat Launches and OPEN to Reserve Harbor Members Only,” the marina manager, Christine Rosow, said in an email July 27.
The move was “due to continued vandalism, unsafe boating operations, and an overall disrespect for Safe Harbor Reserve Harbor boaters, staff, and property.”
Public access to the boat ramp was provided by the Litchfield Co. in an agreement with the local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters and made part of the state permit that allowed 1.1 acres of wetlands to be dredged to allow access from the boat basin to the Waccamaw River. The agreement provided for 25 parking spaces and a $5 launch fee, which were also included in the permit.
“It’s definitely unusual, but the Litchfield Co. intends to do the right thing and do it in the right way,” Russ Campbell, a company executive, said when the deal was announced in July 1998.
Jimmy Chandler, who founded the S.C. Environmental Law Project, represented the public interest groups in a series of legal challenges to the marina project. The state initially approved construction of a 200-slip marina that impacted 42 acres. That was overturned by the state Supreme Court.
The Litchfield Co. then offered public access at the marina as mitigation for dredging the wetlands. The company later offered Georgetown County $150,000 to pay for improvements at Sandy Island Landing instead. Island residents objected.
The county then looked at expanding Hagley Landing, but that also faced opposition from neighbors.
Beth Goodale, the county’s director of Parks and Recreation, worked for the Litchfield Co. at the time of the marina project. “I used to drive people out there all the time,” she said.
Goodale was surprised when the proposal from Safe Harbor arrived on her desk. She wasn’t sure why the company contacted the county.
“That’s not something they can do,” she said of the ramp closing. “That’s a permit condition.”
Rosow did not return calls seeking comment.
Armstrong was also puzzled.
“As long as the marina’s there, then the public has access,” she said. “The county doesn’t have a role.”
County Council Member Stella Mercado lives in the Reserve and has a boat at the marina. She said she learned about the closing from the marina email.
“I don’t know what precipitated that decision,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a county issue.”
Mercado received a few calls about the notice, but people who use the public access say it is rarely used.
After taking over as the marina manager in 2009, when the facility was owned by Morningstar Marinas of North Carolina, Rosow said she saw the ramp as a way to introduce people to the facility. “It’s a great location for a boat launch, we’re right across from Sandy Island,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve landed a single kayak.”
Goodale was skeptical about claims of vandalism being caused by the public that has to pass through a security gate and have their license plate numbers recorded.
When the access agreement was announced, Chandler, who died in 2010, said that the final sticking point had been the $5 launch fee. The Litchfield Co. wanted to charge $15. His clients asked for $2.
The price was included in the permit and any change would require an amendment, which would include an opportunity for public comment, Chandler said.
“They tried to raise the fee a couple of times,” Armstrong said. “We’ve always pushed back, and they’ve always relented.”
By the time the deal cleared the way for state approval, the marina’s size was reduced to 11 acres with 55 slips and a dry-stack facility. But that still involved taking public lands, Armstrong said.
“They got to do something, that is, dredging up wetlands. That’s a pretty serious thing. At least there’s a public benefit, which was access to the navigable waterways,” she said. “That was a significant public benefit.