North Myrtle Beach moves forward with getting permit to dredge Cherry Grove channels

jfrost@thesunnews.comOctober 13, 2012 

North Myrtle Beach is lining up funding and closing in on getting a federal permit to dredge the Cherry Grove channels now that a years-long legal battle over ownership of the canals has ended, but it could be two years before crews start the physical work, officials said.

The city is working to get money to finance the estimated $10 million project and could get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the end of the year.

Officials, who already have met with the Corps of Engineers, plan to meet with environmental agencies Tuesday in Georgetown to review mitigation plans, North Myrtle Beach City Councilman Hank Thomas said Friday.

“It’s one of the final pieces, getting approval of the mitigation plan, then there’s the paperwork process,” he said, adding that the permit from the Corps of Engineers is likely to come in by the end of the year or January, at the latest.

The city is moving forward with obtaining the permit it needs from the Corps of Engineers to begin the dredge work after its legal dispute with a group that claimed ownership of the channels in the Cherry Grove section of North Myrtle Beach has ended after several years.

East Cherry Grove Realty did not appeal the state Supreme Court’s April ruling upholding an Horry County Circuit Court jury’s decision that the state, not East Cherry Grove Realty, owns the canals in Cherry Grove.

“We decided not to proceed any further,” said Gene Connell, a Surfside Beach attorney representing East Cherry Grove Realty. “This [case] was litigated a long time. Factor in the time and expense, we decided that was enough.”

East Cherry Grove Realty - heirs of C.D. Nixon, who Connell has said built the Cherry Grove canals - said it owned the canals, pointing to deeds and a judge’s order from the 1960s. But the state Supreme Court, in deciphering those documents, said in April that while they could be interpreted that way, they “do not unambiguously quitclaim all interest in the canals to East Cherry Grove.”

Legal battles over ownership had lingered since 2004, when North Myrtle Beach started working to dredge the canals but couldn’t move forward until the ownership issue was settled.

North Myrtle Beach officials and property owners along the channels said they feel good that the legal battle is over and that work to dredge the canals can finally begin.

“There should not be anymore appeals there,” said Frank Boulineau, who lives on the channels and has said he can only use them during high tide, otherwise they are too shallow. “I am very hopeful. The city is working very hard on it now and is moving ahead pretty good.”

Dredging the channels would mean people can get their boats in the water, and it would be a “boost to the city of North Myrtle Beach’s economy because people would be able to use the channels at all times,” Boulineau said. “We need a real estate boost in this area. It just takes a little bit of time now to move forward.”

There are about 1,100 property owners along the channels, including condo owners, city spokesman Pat Dowling has said. Residents live along the channels, and vacationers chose to stay there so they can enjoy water activities such as boating and fishing. But sediment has built up in the channels to a point where water barely flows in some places.

Thomas, who grew up on 46th Avenue in Cherry Grove, recalls being able to get a boat out all the time at low tide, using the channels any time of day to boat, fish or crab in the backyard.

“Now [the channels are] just mud flats,” Thomas said. “There’s a desperate need for dredging that would also improve the marine life.”

The city aims to start the dredging work in fall 2014, but it depends on if and when a permit is issued, and if and when financing for the estimated $10 million project is lined up, Dowling said.

In 2009, North Myrtle Beach received a state Department of Health and Environmental Control permit for the dredging project, but would not be issued a second required permit from the Corps of Engineers until East Cherry Grove Realty’s claim of ownership was settled.

“The city began working through the permit process a year or more ago, parallel to the effort to resolve the legal ownership issue,” Dowling said last week in an email. “To move forward with the dredging project, that would, of course, be dependent on having all of the financing in place.”

North Myrtle Beach already received $1.2 million in state funds for the dredging project. The city aims to pay for the project with state, federal and local dollars and a special assessment tax district once it is created, Dowling said.

In the past five years, sediment has increased in the channels from 4 inches to 15 inches, according to a recent survey, and the city has said that, over time, the canals could become impassable if the dredging isn’t done.

Once the dredging starts, it will take about six months to do the work, Dowling has said, adding that crews would dredge the main canal and 28 channels.

Contact JANELLE FROST at 443-2404.

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