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The Future Of Shem Creek:
Can Charm Survive?     
BRYAN HARRISON
  
Shem Creek is the last vestige of what Mount Pleasant once was, a scenic view of what is and the heralding of what Mount Pleasant may become.
   An observer can sit at The Tree House, the outdoor bar at Red’s Ice House, on a Saturday morning and watch Miss Diana, a large fishing vessel, try to moor in but she has to wait while two outboard motor-driven boats back up. The observer counts about 150 such small boats in an hour and a half.
   They are filled with suburban people; bikini clad girls
and bronzed young men, out for a lark. Some boats are larger, equipped for game fishing, but mostly lacking fishing equipment. They go up to the mouth of the creek which runs into Charleston Harbor, but most, especially the smaller boats, come back down the creek. They are joined by two kayaks and a jet ski.    
The tourists and the locals with their visitors begin to show up for lunch at Red¹s. The parking lot at The Trawler Restaurant is already full. Activity across the creek can be seen at other restaurants. The air is filled with the sounds of construction at the next door site of the rebuilding of RB’s Restaurant, destroyed last year by fire. The mournful cries of gulls are temporarily drowned out and the pelicans sit virtually camouflaged on rustic poles.
An engaging gentleman, busy sweeping and keeping the dock clean in front of Red’s explains that the creek doesn’t have a connecting body of water. It drains from the marsh. “They are not just shrimp boats,” he offers, pointing to Miss Diana. “They catch whatever falls in their net.”
      Less than 20 years ago,
Mount Pleasant called Shem Creek its border. What was the town is now called “Old Village.” The village is charming, quaint, a reminder of history, a step back in time, but few people go there beside its residents.
  

 

 

 



The fishing boats are what are left of a thriving local shrimp industry. The town was once devoted to it. The smaller boats are a product of a growing town, ripe and hungry for development.
   The town allowed people to build houses at the headwaters, far away from
Old Village, complete with boat docks and septic tanks.
    They also allowed the restaurants, and both tourists and locals often dine there, the locals showing off to their out-of-town guests the charm of rustic docks and high-masted fishing boats.
   Charm: The magic word for those who can trace their ancestry back to colonial days and to the Johnny-come-latelys who moved here to enjoy what
Mount Pleasant natives have had all along.
    But the creek and its charm are threatened.  The new town has ignored it, failing to monitor its water quality, failing to realize the shrimp industry’s plight, failing to make sure trash and debris are controlled, failing to make sure the septic tanks were in order.
    The creek needs dredging to restore some of its water quality, but the town has never addressed the issue.
    The last time pollution in the creek was monitored, not by the town, but by an outside agency, it was considered safe for boating and swimming, but the shrimp and oyster beds are dead. Considering the fecal matter in the creek, recreational boaters are careful not to fall out of their boats.
   Local environmentalists have been concerned, but they lack influence with the present town government. And, ironically, it is environmental policies which have helped cripple the local fishing industry.
U.S. restrictions on fishing have led to a severe loss in profit for local fishermen who must compete with foreign competitors.
   So what was once a bustling industry on Shem Creek has now become a diminished activity.
   What keeps the local shrimpers in business are the local restaurants who can brag about fresh seafood.
    Although the town had not addressed the issues of Shem Creek in years, someone lobbied the town enough so that in 2001 Mayor Harry M. Hallman, Jr. ordered a special committee to look into the matter. The committee was instructed not to recommend, but to provide a framework for Town Council in order to get a picture of the problems facing Shem Creek.
    The Shem Creek  Management Committee met eight times from September, 2001, to May, 2002. It gathered information from nearby residents, business owners, fishermen and experts from various agencies which will have an ultimate say-so in any commercial development along the creek.
    The report was submitted and filed away.
    It was only until the town discovered last month that a young developer, Richard Coen, had sought three permits from the various agencies to redevelop Shem Creek’s docks. Members of Town Council immediately saw this as a threat. So did all the people who want to preserve the creek’s charm.
    Coen’s full plans are yet to be seen, but he has already angered members of council with some unpolitic remarks in a committee meeting and in a
Charleston newspaper. However, his designs on the creek have forced the town to suddenly become concerned.
   Sensing a popular issue, Hallman and his chief lieutenant, Planning Committee Chair, Joe Bustos, have seized the issue and their committee this week directed the Mount Pleasant Planning Department to come up with what amounts to, in Vice Mayor Kruger Smith’s word, “a comprehensive land use plan for the Shem Creek basin.”
   The department is supposed to look into the recreational, commercial and environmental issues while Town Attorney Allen Young has been asked to look into the legalities the town might face and ordinances that might need to be changed.
   Earlier, Coen said it was “time for the town to step up to the plate.” Meanwhile, he is in the batter’s box and is digging in.
    Some say the fishing industry is good as dead and that Shem Creek is only a nice place to eat and a place for small boat owners to frolic and perhaps do a little fishing. The future of the creek, they say, will follow the way of suburban progress.
   Others say that what is there now is of value and should be preserved as long as possible.



Mayor Ejects Official from Meeting:
Incident
Still Reverberating in Town Hall
August 24 
 Mayor Harry M. Hallman has sent a letter to the members of the MTP Town Council saying he will again bring up the incident at last council meeting involving Mark Foster, chairman of the Town’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA).  Hallman had Foster ejected from that meeting under police escort.
   It came about after Foster rose from his seat, saying “Excuse me“ in response to a comment made by Councilman Joe Bustos who said 
“I would hate to think BOZA is in collusion with somebody and has already decided to sue.”
   Hallman motioned to a policeman on duty in Council chambers and when Foster tried to say something else, he was ejected.
   Foster left the meeting escorted but untouched by the police officer. It was an unprecedented move. Members of Council who have served under Hallman said that Foster’s removal was the first such incident that
they have ever witnessed.
  Foster was neither loud nor unruly. Some members of Council said they barely heard the remark.
    In his letter, Hallman expressed dissatisfaction that Foster even spoke during the open discussion over a request by
Seacoast Community Church to have more road accesses to and from the church parking lot.
   Foster did not wish to comment on the implications of the letter and Mayor Hallman refused to answer questions.
   In another matter, members of Council who serve on the joint Town-County Council recently wrote a letter to Mayor Hallman asking for an explanation as to why the Town’s appointed representative, Bustos, failed to show up at a County Public Hearing dealing with the County’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan. 
Bustos told the MTP News and Comment that he had "business at Town Hall. That’s where I was, at Town Hall.”
   The Town objects to the revised land use plan recommended by the County Planning Commission. Bustos was scheduled to appear first to speak on behalf of the town, but failed to show up.


Next: The neighbors of Shem Creek


The Future of Shem Creek

A Plan To Redevelop
 
Part Three of a series     by Bryan Harrison
 August 11
    When Richard Coen went before Mount Pleasant Town Council’s Planning Committee last June, he asked for an encroachment at the end of Church Street so that he could beautify it with flowers and trees.
    In doing so he opened Pandora’s box. After the committee got through discussing this and all his other plans, someone suggested he beautify it with flower pots. He withdrew his application.
    So the dead end of
Church Street remains a broken street, unsafe, a deep hole full of rocks and broken pavement.
    The other plans were in the box Pandora opened.
Presently there are three dock permits pending before the Office of Coastal and Resource Management (OCRM) , one at the end of Church to the Shem Creek Bridge, which is for a 300 foot by 12 foot floating dock; the second is at the Slightly Up the Creek Restaurant for a boat ramp, as well as a dock, which would be 100 feet plus some decks; and third, there is a request for a 1,400 foot long dock, near the mouth of the creek, along with a boat-side shed.
   The committee was concerned that the encroachment would cause the town to lose control of the end of Church Street. It was even suggested the request was only to help Coen’s business, Red’s Ice House. Even after the developer withdrew his request the committee still sent the matter to Town Council and, by doing so, created a firestorm in which shrimp fishermen joined with neighboring Old Village residents and immediately began to wage war against Coen’s plans.

   Coen, a young developer who successfully developed and redeveloped part of Patriot’s Point, said he was surprised at the reaction. “It’s become an emotional battle,” he said.
   Coen said he went to the Town two years ago and proposed to do a special area management plan. He said Town Administrator Mac Burdette called a special meeting with the Town Planning Department and was told by Planning Department Director Joel Ford that they had done one earlier but it was never adopted.
   “I went to Mayor Hallman. I showed the Town all my plans and asked them if there was anything there detrimental to Shem Creek. They said “No’”.
    Coen maintains that nothing he proposes will hurt the shrimp industry, nor will it take away from the view or destroy the ambience of the creek.
    He points out that some of the docks are broken, treacherous and even collapsing. “The Town has talked about condemning, restoring and repairing. But that’s all they have done, talk about it.”
   In an interview last week, Coen spread his designs and compared them with the existing blue prints.
    He wants a connecting floating dock, another boat ramp and a 31-slip dock near the harbor. The docks in front of Vickery’s Restaurant come to an abrupt stop. In order to connect with the docks on that side of the creek, one has to backtrack, take another dock, cross a marsh island, and take yet another dock to creek side.
   He proposes getting rid of the docks (along with an old abandoned boat) through the marsh, one of them dangerous and tilting, and connecting the docks along the water’s edge. “There are crack heads, thieves and drunks out there,” he said.
    A 12 foot floating dock would allow boat people to maneuver supplies and groceries to their boats, he said.
    He would also like to see a walkway connecting the two sides of the creek where most of the restaurants are located. Coen also envisions small vendors and artists along the docks. “Locals can’t enjoy the creek,” he said.
   Meanwhile the battle raged. Responding to what he felt was criticism from Town Council, he made some remarks in a newspaper article which angered certain members of Council.
   “I hate being the center of controversy but I felt I had to protect my reputation,” he said.
   Those who oppose the plan sent out petitions and placed them in retail stores. Coen’s lawyer fired off a letter to one of the opponents. He said he later went and apologized to one of the parties behind the opposition.
   “I resented unfair criticism. This project has not had benefit of the process. I had hoped it would go through the process where everyone could voice their opinions.
   Yet, Coen admits to making a mistake. “I underestimated the sensitivity of the people along the creek.
   Last week, Chairman Joe Bustos, reacting to Coen’s remarks in the newspaper, had Council’s Planning Committee instruct the Planning Department to do yet another study of the Shem Creek basin, something no one could object to. Last year, a special committee, appointed by the mayor, did an extensive study of the problems of the creek but was not supposed to make recommendations.
    Among the fears of Coen’s plans is that it will increase recreational boating in the narrow creek. “Boat traffic is not the issue,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was as much as four times as many commercial boats in the creek.”
   Coen has control of much of the commercial waterfront along the creek, including Vickery’s Restaurant, The Trawler parking lot and Red’s Ice House which once was an ice making plant for shrimp boats and a seafood processing plant. In order to convert the ice house into a restaurant, he had to get approval from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), OCRM, the Town Appearance Committee and town approval for a building permit. He’s no stranger to the agencies he will have to work with to secure his permits.
   He also rents dock space to shrimp boats. “The rent is the same as it was 40 years ago,” he said. He also buys shrimp fresh off the boat. He explained that most restaurants can’t afford the kitchen labor entailed in heading and peeling shrimp.
    The restaurant has preserved the old ice house structure. He feels that it has preserved the ambience of the creek and enhanced it. One of Coen’s employees, Steve Cummins, came here from Key West, Florida, which he says has lost its local flavor and has become a tourist trap.
   “If I thought that was what Richard was doing here, I
wouldn’t work for him,” he said.
   Coen inherited another employee from the late Red   Simmons. He is 89-year-old Willie Harris who is now the official greeter at Red’s Ice House and who has been on the creek much of his life. He spoke of a time when “the boats were so lined up you could step off one boat and on to another.”  He recalled seeing an estimated 1,000 boats in Shem Creek.
    Summing it up, Coen said his project would make the creek better, safer, cleaner and user friendly. “Right now the creek is dead. It’s a toilet.”

Next: The Reaction




SHEM CREEK:

WHAT THE COMMITTEE LEARNED
      PART TWO IN A SERIES BY BRYAN HARRISON         
August 9   Shem Creek: scenic, charmed, a magnet for  tourists, and for us, unhealthy fouled waters, broken in places, the heart of a town, and historic, and now in the grip of controversy. It rages over an idea that hasn't even been submitted to the Town Hall for review. Yet, there are already forces arrayed against it.
   The controversy is not new. Almost anyone concerned about Shem Creek has a different idea of what, if anything should be done about it.
   It is not that various interests haven’t been heard. Two years ago a committee called The Shem Creek Management Committee met eight times from September 2001 to May 2002. They heard from property owners, businesses, residents and members of the shrimp industry.  

   Chaired by Steve Brock, it was composed of
Everett Jones, a banker active in civic affairs, Cathy Valerio, who served on the Open Space Committee and was instrumental in establishing the first Open Space Foundation for the Town, Chris Brooks, from the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and former Mayor Johnnie Dodds.
   They heard ideas. Right away they ruled out an amusement park that mimicked
Disney Land. They talked about a boardwalk and an overhang. They heard that the Town received funds from OCRM to construct a small public dock on the inland side of the Shem Creek Bridge for access which would go under the Shem Creek Bridge and tie into the Trawler Restaurant, but that the public response was so opposed to the idea that it was dropped.

   A general fear from residents was that a boardwalk would make the creek a tourist attraction.
 Some said that the creek should be left as it is.
   They sought to learn more about the history of the creek and were given pictures of what it looked like in the 1970’s.
   They learned that a bond bill was up which would get funds for dredging the creek (which never happened.)
A member of the SCDNR Marine Advisory Committee expressed concern with "maritime junk", such as sunken boats, old fuel tanks, old cables from shrimp boats, appliances, and other debris, which are readily seen on Shem Creek. He suggested that there should be an effort to clean up this "nautical junk" and debris. (It is still there).

   The trash, they learned came from everywhere, the restaurants, the recreational boaters, commercial boaters, and those crossing the bridge.
   Residents of the area were concerned about safety and parking.  Everyone agreed that shrimp boats added to the natural charm and were beneficial to other businesses. The committee even heard ideas to improve the industry. They learned that even the restaurants along Shem Creek did not purchase from the Shem Creek fleet.
   One shrimp fisherman said that a day’s work only brought him $75 a day profit. Yet the committee was encouraged by the natural trend of more seafood consumption in the
U. S. and some still felt there was a future for the shrimp boats.
    Their final report suggested the town could buy dock space and lease it back to the fishermen. The town could also open an ice and processing plant and encourage local restaurants to buy from the Shem Creek boats. The town could establish a use district to provide tax advantages to the industry.
   Despite objections, the committee told the town that tourists could be attracted to the creek with a boardwalk, and even a shrimp boat could be outfitted to take people on educational tours. They noted the poor water quality and the lack of recent monitoring.
   The general consensus of the people heard by the committee was
that they all wanted the charm and “naturally water dependent” character of Shem Creek to be maintained.
    The committee suggested that any redevelopment should be “guided.” A redevelopment plan should preserve the history of the creek. Adequate parking should be provided and conflicts should be avoided with neighboring residents.
The town could create a “fishing village” type designation in the town’s zoning code.
    The report concluded by saying “overwhelmingly, the consensus was that the character of the creek remain, as it is – natural, water-dependent, charming – a ’working” creek.’ “   
               
TO FULL SHEM CREEK STUDY REPORT

Next: The Coen Plan




 

Next: What the Shem Creek Committee heard.
____________________________________


The Battle For Shem Creek

  What began as a permitting request to plant trees and flowers along a portion of Shem Creek has erupted into a full scale battle between developer Richard Cohen and s
ome angry shrimpers and environmentalists.
   Cohen, it was subsequently revealed, had more in mind than oleanders, palmettos and landscaping.  He also intended to replace an existing deck on the creek,  construct new decking and a new dock at the end of Church Street.
   
 The dock would extend to the Shem Creek Bridge.
     Cohen’s request was for an  encroachment permit across the Church Street right-of-way which would allow access to Shem Creek.  Church Street is owned by the Town. The request drew flak from other property owners along the right of way and some serious questions from some of Town Council’s Planning Committee.
The committee, however, shuffled the problem upstairs and in last months meeting, Town Council discovered that development plans were even larger in scale.
Presently there are three dock permits pending, one at the end of Church to the Shem Creek Bridge, which is for a 300 foot by 12 foot floating dock; the second is at the Slightly Up the Creek Restaurant for a boat ramp, as well as a dock, which would be 100 feet plus some decks; and third, there is a request for a 1,400 foot long dock which would tie into a marsh island not in the town) along with a boat-side shed.
However, all of it now rests with the Army Corps of Engineers who will have to approve any permits the developers are asking. Other agencies have already looked at the permits and a joint public hearing with the Corps will be forthcoming.
   Cohen said Church Street has been unimproved for years and he would like to fix it so people can get to his businesses front door.  He said the businesses will be a charter office and restaurant. The whole goal of the Shem Creek Management Plan, Cohen said, was to open it up to the public, beautify it, increase accessibility, and promote waterfront uses.  “Right now it’s an eyesore, he said, and if the town doesn’t want to fix it, he’d like to fix it.
However some of the people who worked on the plan said Cohen’s dreams were hardly what they had in mind.
Shrimp fishermen, who use the current docks, including those at the river mouth of the creek, deplore further pollution of the creek, long devoid of shrimp and oyster beds, and don’t look forward to sharing the space with an increasing number of recreational boats and other commercial uses.
Environmentalists say Cohen’s project will only add to the pollution, traffic and noise problems.
Other restaurants object to Cohen’s plans for valet parking at Red’s Ice House at the end of Church Street. The property, often referred to as the Simmons property, is now represented by Cohen’s firm.
Council left the whole complicated problem up in the air and, like the other concerned parties, is waiting on the Corps of Engineers and a public hearing.
      (To Minutes of Planning Committee meeting)




The Future of Shem Creek
The Fishermen Speak Out

   Shem Creek series by Bryan Harrison   
   They call him the “Mayor of Shrimp Creek” but he is no longer an active commercial fisherman. He leaves that to a son and a nephew. Now he holds court in his home along Molasses Creek or down by the water where he occasionally casts for a few shrimp for himself and friends.   Although a former Mount Pleasant Town Councilman, he says they call him mayor because he’s ”the oldest one around.” A World War II U.S. Navy veteran and a recent widower, Bob Santos sits back and reflects on the future of Shem Creek.
   “Developers like Richard Coen don’t have a clue.” he said.
  But his concern for the commercial fishing industry goes beyond Shem Creek. He blames the laxity of the
United States in allowing foreign imports who undercut American fishermen. Countries such as  Spain, Portugal, Ecuador, China, Japan and Russia have lower fuel costs fuel costs are less and the labor force doesn’t need as much as their U. S. counterparts.
  “ We’ve been competing for 12 years and for the past five we’ve been competing with pond shrimp,” he said.
   Since homeland security has become an issue, he worries that chemical warfare could be used by terrorists importing seafood into the country.
    He has a word to say about sport fishermen, too. Showing off a T-shirt he had made with a photograph of large fish in a dumpster after being killed by sport fishermen, he demonstrates what the “competing industry” does for the environment.
   
He feels that a marina at the mouth of the harbor and more floating docks will hurt the shrimp industry. Santos also worries about people in pleasure boats drinking at the bars late at night. “When shrimp boats come in at night and try to dock it could get dangerous.”
    Reminiscing about the old days, he remembers when the railroad was near the docks and shrimp wholesalers could send their catch to other places in the country.
   Wayne Magwod buys shrimp straight from the boats, his dock allowing two boats at a time. His father built the business from scratch and there was a time when five or six boats at a time lined up to unload shrimp.
   He has no problem with Coen’s plans at the restaurant area of the creek. “I told him, however, that I didn’t want $100,000 yachts across from me. It’s hard enough to turn the boats around as it is.”
   And that is the big problem as far as the commercial shrimp fishermen are concerned. They also talk about accidents in which people have been killed or seriously injured and accidents caused by the recreational boats which cost money.
   Raul Morales of Raul’s Seafood also complained of the turnaround problem. With all the pleasure boats, “it’s already wild and it’s going to get wilder.”
   Also a part of the commercial fish industry on Shem Creek is four long-liners which go out for sword fish and shark. The boats send out long lines attached with hooks for the bigger fish.
   One of the fishermen, Frank Mullins, states flatly that commercial fishermen and sports fishermen can’t co-exist. Not only collisions but just scratching the sports boats is disastrous.
“Those boats are pristine and fragile. We do a lot of grinding on the creek and when we get through, those boats look like they have the measles.”
   Raul Fisk, of Raul’s Seafood, said he thought that a man should be allowed to do what he wants with his property. “Some people want Shem Creek like it once was. That’s unrealistic.” He added that the creek shouldn’t consist of just pleasure boats. “It’s still a working, commercial creek.”
   Another long boat operator, Frank Blum, began operating in the creek in the early eighties and he says that the commercial fishermen are doing less than five per cent of the volume they did then.
   “Commercial fishing is dying,” he said. Eighty per cent of the seafood is imported.” The people have to decide if they want fresh fish or “Floridize’ the creek. We are between McCllelanville and
Fort Lauderdale and we are developmentally between these two locations. The people have to decide where they want to go.”
   Blum said in his opinion, “development on Shem Creek “should stop right now.”
   Fred Scott, proprietor of The Wreck of the Richard and
Charlene Restaurant, said he had no problem with Coen’s ideas for dock improvement, but agreed with others that there were too many sports fishing and other boats in the creek now.
   In contrast to 77-year-old
Santos, 21-year-old Chris Reedy is not bothered by the battle on Shem Creek. “I make it a point to get along with everybody. I know some people just don’t like change,” he said.
   Reedy was a “Navy brat” and has lived much of his young life on the water. He began working the shrimp boats on Shem Creek when he was 15 years old. He worked on some of the larger boats, but has settled now for working on the back deck of the 32-foot Bridget.
   He sells all the shrimp from the boat to restaurants on Shem Creek or sells directly from the boat. At low tide Chris has to use his acrobatic skills just to get on and off the boat. He definitely likes floating docks and as for a marina at the mouth of the creek, he says that if the creek were dredged “there would be so much more room up there.”
    When asked the hypothetical question of what he would do if the shrimp boats all went out of business, he said, “If I had to get a land job, I wouldn’t last anytime at all.”

 




 
 

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