The S.C. State Ports Authority wants to convert 115 acres of saltmarsh on Daniel Island into the state’s largest saltwater mitigation bank for economic projects and a permanently protected recreational space for Lowcountry residents.
The acreage is part of a larger land holding leftover from a decades-old, failed terminal project. The maritime agency now wants to return the marsh it owns along the Cooper River back to its natural state.
The proposed mitigation bank would permanently preserve those natural resources, as well as generate revenue for the port and boost economic development around the state.
Per federal law, companies must buy credits from freshwater or saltwater banks to offset the destruction of wetlands incurred by construction of new facilities or roads. Credits are designed to compensate for those losses by protecting marshes and wetlands elsewhere in the state.
South Carolina has few saltwater credit options currently, including some run through the Department of Transportation.
The port’s Daniel Island mitigation bank would serve as a relief valve for when complex projects need to secure environmental permits, said Raleigh West III, executive director of the Moncks Corner-based Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust.
West said he hopes the trust, which came up with the idea, will hold the conservation easement for the saltwater bank. The easement would prevent any development in the area and improve water quality there by restoring original habitats.
The proposed bank abuts a 50-acre, port-owned parcel, which the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department leased to create a marsh-based park. The combined areas would be a public asset for recreational activities, such as kayaking or fishing.
“My vision is that it would be one of the largest urban parks and protected areas in Charleston. … It’s a quality of life issue,” West said. “Can you imagine Manhattan without Central Park, or Charleston without Waterfront Park? The more iconic, public protected spaces that we have, I think the better off we all are.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, is currently reviewing the port’s application for the mitigation bank. Restoration work would involve filling in and restoring decades-old creeks and creek beds and removing dredged materials.
The ports authority worked with environmental agencies, state legislators and area developers on the proposal. Patrick Moore, the agency’s environmental manager, said the port wants to recreate the channel’s pattern from 100 years ago.
“This is the biggest saltwater restoration project in the history of South Carolina,” Moore said.
Moore said the lack of saltwater banks in the tri-county region means companies are responsible for creating their own plan to offset losses with saltwater credits. He said that process can be costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive.
“This is a big deal from an economic development standpoint. … It provides a certainty and efficiency in permitting that does not currently exist, while also being really good for the environment,” Moore said.
The port would earn money for each credit sold as part of a mitigation package. The number of available credits and the price of those credits has not been decided, Moore said.
The maritime agency has been trying to sell off its non-port-related land holdings in recent years, including the nearly 1,300 acres on Daniel Island that were set aside in the late 1990s for a terminal project that never came to fruition.
The port planned to build a $1.2 billion containership terminal on at least 800 acres along the Wando and Cooper rivers. Port officials at the time thought the project, known as the Global Gateway, would mark the port as a major cargo player on the Eastern seaboard.
Some surrounding neighborhoods would have been torn down, and nearby interstates would have required widening. Neighborhood groups and environmentalists decried the project, eventually leading legislators to kill it. The port was left with a large tract of land in need of a new buyer.
The ports authority reinvigorated its efforts to sell the Daniel Island land in 2015. Around 900 acres will be used for dredge disposal for the harbor deepening project and the ongoing work at the Hugh Leatherman Terminal, which is being built in North Charleston.
Some of the land might be sold back to the original landowners, and The Daniel Island Co. bought about 40 acres for a development.
The remaining 165 acres will be used for the state’s park and the port’s mitigation bank, appearing as one, large marsh area for residents.
“Mother Nature will take it over. … The more amenities we have in the urban area, the better,” West said.
This story appeared in the Feb. 20, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.