One of the last stretches of undeveloped seashore near Myrtle Beach will be protected from development now that an extended court battle has been resolved, conservationists say.
The northern third of Waties Island, a sandy land formation in the shadow of the Grand Strand’s dense development, is expected to be purchased by the Open Space Institute, which will then deed the property to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
That’s according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project, a non-profit legal service representing a landowner who has been trying for years to sell her portion of the 2.5-mile long island for protection.
“The impediment that has been standing in the way of permanent conservation is now clear,’’ said Amy Armstrong, director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, referring to a lawsuit against the landowner that was dropped earlier this month.
Patrick Moore, an official with the Open Space Institute, said he could not comment.
With the acquisition of the northern part of the island, the majority of Waties will be protected as a natural area. The lower third of the roughly 400-acre island, including the oceanfront, has already been preserved. That area is owned by Coastal Carolina University’s educational foundation. The university conducts scientific research there.
That leaves only the middle of the island open for development. It is owned by Riverstone Properties of Virginia. An official with Riverstone told The State in 2001 that the company wanted to develop the property. But plans for development have never been fulfilled.
What to know about Waties Island
Waties Island, sometimes spelled Waites Island, is sandwiched between the densely developed Cherry Grove section of North Myrtle Beach and Little River, near the North Carolina state line. While barrier islands are plentiful south of Myrtle Beach, Waties is the only one entirely in Horry County. (Nearby Bird Island is mostly in North Carolina, but a sliver is in South Carolina).
Waties contains an array of wildlife, forests and high sand dunes, and is a popular spot for horseback riding on the beach. Unlike the beach at Cherry Grove just across a tidal inlet, the seashore at Waties Island does not have beach houses or condominium buildings.
“You go out there, you are in this pristine place,’’ Armstrong said. “It’s untouched. It looks now the same as it did 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago — it is a stark, stark difference from what is right on the other side of the inlet.’’
Olivia Boyce-Abel, who is selling the land for conservation, said she hopes the sale will have a domino effect that could trigger protection of the remainder of the island.
“I’m very relieved and excited that this (legal fight) has ended,’’ said Boyce-Abel, a member of the Tilghman family that owned Waties Island for years. “I’m excited for the future of the land and what it means for the preservation of the land for the people of South Carolina and for conservation.’’
She and Moore declined to disclose the sales price.
Lengthy legal dispute
The legal dispute that has delayed protection of part of Waties Island has gone on for more than a year. Coastal Carolina University’s educational foundation had been at odds with Boyce-Abel over ownership of a portion of the property.
The foundation raised questions about the ownership of a patch of land that had been built up by the ocean’s currents along the waterfront.
The university has now dropped its legal claim to the accreted land, according to court documents.
Attorneys for the Coastal Educational Foundation and property owner Boyce-Abel agreed June 20 that the legal matter should be dismissed. Armstrong’s group represented Boyce-Able.
Officials with Coastal Carolina were not available Monday to explain why they had dropped the lawsuit.
Regardless of the reason, Norman Pulliam, who chairs the state Department of Natural Resources board, said saving Waties Island is important.
Waties Island has been under development pressure for years, said Pulliam, who remembers taking a small boat over from Cherry Grove to Waties Island long ago to enjoy the beach with his family.
“It’s fabulous property,’’ Pulliam said of Waties. But without protection “It will be developed.’’