Future Of Shem Creek:
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
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
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
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
The town allowed people to build
houses at the headwaters, far away from
Old Village, complete with boat docks and septic
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
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
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.
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
The report was submitted and
It was only until the town
discovered last month that a young developer,
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
Coen’s full plans are yet to be seen, but
he has already angered members of council with
unpolitic remarks in
a committee meeting and in a Charleston
newspaper. However, his designs on the creek
have forced the town to suddenly become
Sensing a popular issue, Hallman
and his chief lieutenant, Planning Committee
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.
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
Mayor Ejects Official from Meeting:
Still Reverberating in Town Hall
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
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
they have ever
Foster was neither loud nor unruly. Some
members of Council said they barely heard
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
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
Next: The neighbors of Shem Creek
The Future of Shem Creek
Three of a series
When Richard Coen went before Mount Pleasant
Town Council’s Planning Committee last June, he
asked for an encroachment at the end of Church
so that he could beautify it with flowers and
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
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
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
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
Meanwhile the battle raged.
Responding to what he felt was criticism from
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
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
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
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
PART TWO IN A SERIES BY BRYAN HARRISON
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
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
Everett Jones, a
banker active in civic affairs, Cathy Valerio,
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
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
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
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
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
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
they all wanted the charm and “naturally water
dependent” character of Shem Creek to be
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
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”
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 some
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.
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
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
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
Environmentalists say Cohen’s project will only
add to the pollution, traffic and noise
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
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
(To Minutes of Planning Committee meeting)
The Future of Shem
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
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.
“ 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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.”