Conservationists call on House to stop looser beach erosion rules

sfretwell@thestate.comMay 14, 2014 

— Frances Close remembers walking the seashore from one end of Debordieu Beach to the other, enjoying the scenery of coastal Georgetown County.

Today, decades after Close made those routine walks, it’s hard to take such a stroll. A 4,000-foot-long seawall has made the beach erode so badly that the shore is covered by the Atlantic Ocean, she says. A walk down the beach toward North Inlet now means struggling through current-driven seawater in front of the bulkhead.

“You could see, over time, the beach getting eroded out and the sand get knocked away,” said Close, a prominent conservationist whose family once owned a house on Debordieu. “At high tide, it was so turbulent there, with all of the washing, you couldn’t go by at all. You couldn’t walk down the beach to North Inlet anymore. It was because of that seawall.”

Close, a 65-year-old Columbia resident, made those remarks at a news conference Wednesday in which she and other environmentalists denounced a bill to let a handful of property owners rebuild the aging Debordieu seawall. Some Debordieu residents built the wall 33 years ago to protect fewer than 25 houses as the beach eroded and waves chewed into the land.

Not only will a new seawall at Debordieu continue to worsen beach erosion south of Pawleys Island, but it could weaken a state law that banned seawalls about a quarter century ago, environmentalists said. The ban, adopted as part of the 1988 beach management act, was enacted because seawalls are known to make beach erosion worse when slammed by waves. Close served on a 1987 commission that recommended tighter development controls later included in the 1988 law.

During the State House news conference, representatives of major environmental groups said they’ll fight the bill to allow the Debordieu seawall and ease other oceanfront development rules.

The bill originally sought to prevent the seaward movement of development while maintaining existing prohibitions on seawalls, but it has been amended so much that conservationists say it could hurt beaches from the Grand Strand to Hilton Head Island.

A House committee last week voted to delay tougher building restrictions at the request of Kiawah Island developers, at the same time it approved reconstruction of the failing seawall at Debordieu. A version of the bill has already passed the Senate.

Those seeking looser development rules along the ocean say they need help protecting their homes or deserve special consideration because their situation is unusual in South Carolina. The dispute over whether to ease certain development restrictions is occurring as sea levels are predicted to rise by the end of the century.

At Debordieu, property owners say the ocean is so close to their beach houses that it shakes the homes when waves hit the seawall. The bill says they can rebuild the wall up to two feet farther out onto the beach. Not allowing that could expose the state to lawsuits, one legislator said.

“To not allow these folks to repair their wall could cause some financial liability on the part of the state,” Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, said. “They have no intention of building a new wall, they just want to shore up the wall that they have. This doesn’t change anything.”

The other section of the bill that has conservationists concerned would delay by seven years tougher restrictions on how close to the ocean a hotel or home could be built. Kiawah Island developers, saying their beach is growing wider naturally, say they need flexibility for a high-end development on Captain Sam’s spit. Environmentalists have waged a bitter fight against the project, saying the spit is too risky to build on.

“This bill has been kidnapped by the House and force fed with special amendments that are for special interests,” said Nancy Cave, a representative of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “We’re calling on all House members to vote against this bill and the erosion that it will do to our public beaches.”

Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, used the biblical reference against building on sand to illustrate the point of unwise beach development. The state shouldn’t have to bail out people who made unwise decisions, she said.

Norrell said most of the houses next to the seawall at Debordieu have been purchased since the bulkhead was built, meaning the owners should have known how serious the situation was when they bought their houses. Debordieu is a gated, upscale community with about 1,200 homes.

For Close, the Debordieu issue hits home. Once, because the beach there had eroded so much, Close said she had to walk down the top of the seawall to reach the lower end of the seaside community. But the jaunt wasn’t without incident.

A property owner told her she was trespassing on private property and called police. Although the issue was resolved, Close said having to walk on the seawall emphasizes what Debordieu has lost: the public beach.

“It was a shame,” Close said. “I’m sure that person really didn’t understand what was going on. But the sea level is going to rise, and it’s going to wipe out the houses whether they have seawalls or not eventually.”

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