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More than 250 people spoke in a largely united voice Thursday night: they oppose a developer's plan to build seven community docks with up to 70 boat slips on a peninsula between the Okatie and Colleton rivers.
Elected officials, environmentalists and residents railed against the project, delivering impassioned speeches demanding the state deny the permit and the developer pull back the application.
Many speakers at the Bluffton High School auditorium derided the project as a de facto marina, a structure they said isn't allowed by law in the Okatie River. They used harsh language to describe the proposal, calling it a "disaster," "unconscionable," "disgusting," and "... the death of the Okatie River."
The hearing, which officials said was the largest in more than five years in Beaufort County, was held by the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, the agency charged with determining the fate of the project. The agency received more than 100 letters opposing the docks and boat lifts, including two from state Rep. Bill Herbkersman and state Sen. Catherine Ceips.
Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton and Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnston sparked applause from the crowd with speeches about the importance of protecting the Lowcountry's rivers and demands that the state deny the permit application.
"If we had a show of hands in this room for people against this proposal, it would damn near be unanimous," Johnston said, as hands shot up throughout the auditorium. "Looking at this request, it's insane."
Pinckney Point LLC, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based developer, filed an application earlier this summer with the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to build six piers between 169 and 975 feet into the Okatie and one 900-foot pier into the Colleton. Each dock would have 10 boat slips.
The developer also wants to build an 86-foot boat ramp with a 60-foot floating dock in a small tributary of the Colleton at the end of Pinckney Colony Road in greater Bluffton.
Representatives of the company attended the meeting, but did not speak Thursday night.
Attorneys for Pinckney Point said this week the developer's request is for significantly fewer docks than the state would allow. They also said the plan doesn't meet OCRM's classification for a marina.
McNair law firm attorney's Walter Nester and Leslie Riley, who was formerly chief counsel for OCRM, said Tuesday the developer's proposal is in line with the state's encouragement to build community docks instead of several individual ones.
"These are not community docks. This is a marina," Newton countered Thursday night.
Newton said he's concerned about water quality and the environmental impact of adding 70 boats to two fragile, pristine waterways.
"In laymen's terms: It's too much, and too concentrated in an area that is already threatened," he said, referencing a state action in July 2006 that restricted shellfishing in the Okatie due to high levels of bacteria. "You have the duty to deny this application."
A Callawassie Island resident handed a petition with more than 500 signatures to OCRM officials to consider before making a decision on the proposal.
According to plans submitted as part of the filing, the developer wants to build 76 homes on the 229 rural acres at Pinckney Point. The property was sold for more than $10 million last year to Stokes, Bush & Barnes Land Co., an Atlanta developer. Later, the company created Pinckney Point LLC as a holding company for the Bluffton development.
To build the homes, the developer needs access to a dirt road leading to the property. Ownership of that road is the subject of a pending lawsuit.
Bluffton attorney Roberts Vaux, who represents Pinckney Colony on the road ownership issue, said since the county hasn't approved the development, the developer has no business asking for the dock permit.
He characterized the proposal as an assault on decades of work to keep the waterways pristine.
"They've been greedy, and there needs to be a stop put to it," he said.
"We don't want it,. We've fought against (projects like this) for 40 years and won, and we'll keep fighting against it until we win again."
Mary O. Merrick, a Pinckney family member who's lived in Pinckney Colony for most of her life, drew loud applause before she even started speaking.
"I've lived in Pinckney Colony on the Colleton River for 86 years," she said, "and I plan to live here and fight this development to my dying days."