Many of the Lowcountry’s marina’s were badly damaged by Hurricane Matthew this past fall, and while much of the marine debris blocking boat routes has been removed, there’s still a lot of work to be done. After months of back and forth between state departments and Beaufort County, the South Carolina Attorney General had delegated the multimillion-dollar responsibility of marine debris cleanup to the county.
Those traveling on Highway 21 to and from Lady’s Island can see abandoned boats washed up by the side of the road.
“It’s certainly been an eyesore,” said Mary Hunt the dockmaster at Lady’s Island Marina, “The SCDNR has had a really hard time tracking down owners and some of them, from what we understand have been there for up to 10 years, at anchor, and the storm is the thing that finally pushed them onto the side of the road.”
She says that in some cases, the cost of removing a boat is more than the boat is actually worth… which now leaves it up to the county.
“It needs to get cleaned up and if the state is not going to necessarily step in and do it themselves, the county needs to do it,” said Josh Gruber, the Deputy County Administrator for Beaufort County.
The confusion between the county and the South Carolina Departments of Natural Resources and Health and Environment Control was the fact that the water is technically state property.
“From a legal standpoint, property that is below the mean high water is owned by the state of South Carolina, so it’s the state’s property not county property,” said Gruber.
County attorney Tom Keaveny wrote to the Attorney General asking for a definite answer, and in response, was told in an official letter, “A coastal county, such as Beaufort County, possesses ‘legal responsibility’ with respect to debris cleanup in the tideland areas between mean high and low waters,” adding that the state has delegated power over the area to the county.
This meaning, the county will now front the bill, with hopes of reimbursement from FEMA and state legislatures.
“The cost that we put up front comes from the county’s general fund, so that is taxpayer money, it’s the reserve fund that we have for situations like this,” said Gruber, “Ultimately, we’re gonna be seeking reimbursement not only from FEMA, we’ve also been talking with representatives of our legislative delegation with the state.”
With FEMA deadlines for debris removal reimbursement set for April 3rd, the county has put in a request for an extension, in addition to starting a discussion at the recent county council retreat on the hypothesis of not getting much of the cost reimbursed. That, falling on taxpayers.
“They may look at increasing the millage rate for three to four mils for a 3 to 4 year period of time so that way it’s not a very large amount for just one year. They would try to spread it out over a couple of years, but you also have to prepare for the next storm that may be coming down the road, so you can’t delay it over a period of 20 years.” Gruber said.
In the meantime, the county is currently reviewing bids from contractors for removing the remaining marine debris.
“Once we select firm, the first thing they’re gonna do is go out and kind of do a survey within the county to determine what debris is out there, how much of it is there and then once we know the answer to that question, we’ll have an idea about how much the cost is gonna be,” said Gruber.
Although that cost is expected to be similar to debris removal on land, millions.