Saving Sandy Island

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on August 27, 2000

Life has stood still for more than a century on Sandy Island, S.C. No police patrol the tightly knit coastal community of 120 descendants of freed slaves, and no bridge connects the island to the mainland. George Weathers and his fellow islanders use a boat to get to work and take their children to school.

“We like the quiet and the privacy,” says Weathers, the community leader (and a private man who preferred not to be photographed for this story.)

But in 1993 it looked as though this rustic setting would disappear forever.

Sandy Island borders a region undergoing some of the country’s most frenetic development, where pressure to build resorts and golf courses has been bulldozing other coastal communities into history for decades.

Now, two of South Carolina’s biggest developers, who owned most of Sandy Island, wanted to build a bridge to the mainland. In a short time, the community would be crawling with construction workers and flooded with tourists.

“We didn’t know what to do, but we knew we were up against some powerful people,” Weathers recalls.

But local residents had a powerful allytheir environment. Sandy Island’s fragile ecosystem features stunning long-leaf pines, cypress trees, and marine forests draped in Spanish moss. It’s also inhabited by endangered wildlife. The islanders knew if they could attract attention to all that would be lost if development occurred, they might have a fighting chance.

Enter Dana Beach, an environmentalist and founder of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, who got wind of the development plan and jumped into action.

“I thought building a bridge would be a disaster,” Beach says.

He suggested the islanders work together on a defense strategy. They agreed to meet with the environmentalist at the landing where they docked their boats on the mainland. That meeting broke the ice, and an alliance was forged. The league would lead the defense and keep the islanders informed along the way.

As happens with many environmental disputes, the struggle over Sandy Island turned ugly. Developers insisted the bridge would be used only to carry timber off the island, and there would be no further development. The islanders and their allies scoffed, and the dispute ended up in court.

The case dragged on for nearly three years, until Beach learned that South Carolina had approved a new highway to run through acres of pristine coastal wetlands. He knew that federal law requires states to compensate for wetlands destroyed by new highway construction by creating or acquiring new wetlands, and much of Sandy Island is wetland.

Why not get the developers to sell the island to South Carolina?

“It looked like a long shot at the time, but it was worth a try,” Beach recalls.

The environmentalist met with Buck Limehouse, a successful Charleston businessman who was also chairman of the South Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT), and made his case. “The DOT can save Sandy Island while allowing South Carolina to obey the law,” Beach reasoned.

Limehouse, it turned out, was not a typical businessman. He is committed to the environment and appreciates the beauty of the South Carolina coast. “The developers didn’t want anything to do with the other side, but I had their business background and could speak their language,” Limehouse recalls. “I knew I could convince them to do the right thing.”

Limehouse was an effective lobbyist. The deal he brokered turned out to be one of the country’s most creative examples of how to forge a private-public environmental partnership.

The DOT bought most of Sandy Island for $10 million (not including the village or several private residences). The Nature Conservancy, a private conservation group in Washington, D.C., donated an additional $1 million toward the purchase. Remarkably, the owners agreed to lower the price of their land $1 million below the appraised value. In all, the money bought 17,000 acres, which are now in a special trust.

“It sounds incredible, but everybody won,” Beach says. “Now a way of life and an entire ecosystem are protected from commercial development.”

Today, all is quiet on Sandy Island. No bridge. No asphalt highways. No golf courses. No tourists by the busloads. The islanders continue to take their boats to the mainland.

“We wanted our life to stay the way it is,” Weathers says. “Now it’s going to stay that way forever.”