In 1999, the developers of two small islands in Beaufort County proposed residential developments on the North and South Palm Islands that were to be accessed by boat. However, the developers later sought approval for bridge permits that would have allowed vehicular access to the small islands, claiming that a bridge over public trust tidelands should be permitted.
Before the bridge permit application, the developer had obtained approvals for various development permits with applications that called for access to the islands to be gained by water, not by bridges. The developer demonstrated the feasibility of water access by off-loading heavy construction equipment to the islands.
In seeking to place bridges over public trust tidelands that would only benefit the private residents of North and South Palm Islands, the developers threatened to degrade local water quality and negatively impact the community’s longstanding reliance on the local waters for commercial, recreational and sustenance uses.
North and South Palm Islands are adjacent to Eddings Creek, a saltwater creek which is classified SFH, a designation given to waters protected for shellfish harvesting. The bridges would have resulted in adverse impacts to water quality and shellfish resources; negatively impacting shrimping, fishing, crabbing, and oysters. The bridges would also adversely impact existing public access to navigable waters.
In the late ‘90s, coastal development began to pick up pace and small islands in the marshes around the ecologically and culturally significant St Helena Island became prime targets for development. As a response, concerned local citizens organized “SOS Islands” – Save Our Small Islands – to seek the preservation of these irreplaceable ecological resources.
Upon learning about the developer’s applications, the group succeeded in persuading OCRM to deny a developer's application to build bridges to two islands the developer renamed the Palm Islands. When the developer appealed OCRM's decision, SOS Islands asked SCELP to intervene to help fight the appeal. Local citizens also challenged septic tank permits for the islands, and a series of dock permits.
The community effort, also assisted by the Coastal Conservation League, stymied the development and convinced Beaufort County Council to commit funds to buy the islands. After several months of negotiations, the purchase was announced in October 2000 and SOS Island celebrated the occasion at a community center overlooking the Morgan River.
The permanent conservation outcome of North and South Palm Islands was a resounding victory for the local community members who regularly use and enjoy the waters, wetlands and other natural resources of that area.