SC Attorney General Wants to Stop Salt Marsh Development

Wed November 24, 2004 - Southeast Edition

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) Attorney General Henry McMaster is fighting to prevent development on pristine salt marsh islands, saying he wants to preserve the state’s natural heritage.

McMaster said the undeveloped islands are public property unless there’s proof the government gave up its ownership rights. In the past year, his office has begun checking to see if people own the land they are seeking state permission to develop.

McMaster issued a 2003 opinion reaffirming state ownership of salt marsh islands. Since then, South Carolina’s coastal regulatory office has canceled at least two permits from people wanting to build on salt marsh islands. McMaster’s office says it couldn’t find proof of ownership.

The coastal agency also has had at least seven unresolved permit requests reviewed by McMaster’s office, according to data discussed by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board (DHEC).

In some cases, people have shown government grants proving the property is theirs. The state requires Colonial-era grants from the British government or grants from the U.S. or state governments.

The state has approved environmental permits for at least three marsh island construction projects following verification of private ownership, DHEC said.

Coastal regulators expect questions to increase about salt marsh ownership as development patterns move to the tidelands. Most beaches and barrier islands are either developed or protected, so developers now are eying salt marsh islands for resort projects.

South Carolina has more than 3,400 islands in marshes, about 2,000 of which are undeveloped and potentially ripe for bridges or docks, DHEC’s coastal office reported.

Salt marsh islands range in size from less than a half acre to more than 100 acres. But many are smaller –– just one to five acres –– and provide important wildlife refuge. Environmentalists say keeping the islands free of bridges, which lead to development, will protect habitats and water quality in salt marshes.

McMaster said growth patterns make it important to check ownership of undeveloped islands proposed for bridges, docks or homes.