A state law intended to protect public beaches across South Carolina continues to crumble as legislators seek help for a select group of seaside property owners whose homes are at risk from the ocean.
As early as Thursday morning, a House committee was expected to approve easing the state’s 26-year-old ban on new seawalls, even though scientists say the structures worsen beach erosion when hit by waves.
The seawall ban is the cornerstone of South Carolina’s 1988 coastal protection law, but homeowners in the gated community of Debordieu Beach persuaded the state Senate last month to let them rebuild the battered, 4,000-foot bulkhead in an attempt to save their homes.
If the Legislature exempts Debordieu from the seawall ban, other communities would have an argument to build seawalls for the first time in decades – and the public would have less beach to walk on, say opponents of the legislation.
“Eventually, the beach will disappear in front of the seawall; that’s why states like South Carolina banned these things a long time ago,” said Rob Young, a coastal geologist who recently served on a blue ribbon study commission of South Carolina’s coastal laws.
“The state’s role is to protect those public-trust lands, not to protect investment property.”
The House agriculture committee was to discuss the bill Thursday morning and was expected to send it to the full House for action next week, several committee members said. Gov. Nikki Haley would have to decide whether to sign the bill or veto the measure if the House approves the legislation.
Reps. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, and Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, said they’re trying to help people with a critical problem. Vick, Goldfinch and several other legislators visited the site, where some houses are close to the ocean and little beach exists in front of the seawall.
“At mid-tide, standing on their decks and watching the waves pound against those decks, it’s downright scary,” said Goldfinch, who represents homeowners in the area. “Their houses literally shake at night. They are scared to death.”
Georgetown County real estate records list fewer than 25 oceanfront beach houses, valued at more than $30 million, behind the wooden seawall. Overall, Debordieu has more than 1,200 developed home sites, both inland and along the shore, in the exclusive community south of Myrtle Beach.
Among those behind the seawall is former Coca Cola executive Beverly Freeman, a one-time Atlanta resident. She is a contact for Friends of Georgetown County Beaches, a little-known group that hired ex-state coastal regulator Wayne Beam to lobby for the Debordieu seawall, records show.
Others include Hopkins resident John L. Jackson, a former executive with the Jackson Camera chain in South Carolina; and one-time State Ports Authority chairman Harry J. Butler Jr., a prominent real estate businessman in Georgia and South Carolina, who is listed as a trustee for a home behind the seawall, records show.
Freeman and Jackson say they only want to protect their homes, not hurt the public beach, even as they wait on a privately funded renourishment project. Jackson said Wednesday he’d rather have renourishment to widen the beach than rely on a seawall.
Butler, who records show has contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for state office, could not be reached Wednesday.
Goldfinch and Vick said they do not believe the Debordieu exemption will cause a flurry of new seawall requests. Instead, Goldfinch said the legislation will merely allow Debordieu to make repairs to the wall, rather than build a new one.
South Carolina’s current debate over the Debordieu seawall is occurring amid increasing concern about climate change and sea level rise. The National Climate Assessment, released Tuesday after input from 300 experts, said sea levels could rise 1 to 4 feet off the Southeast coast by the end of the century.
The Legislature noted dangers of rising seas in 1988, when it outlawed new seawalls after a series of high tides caused decks and pools to wash into the ocean in the Myrtle Beach area.
Legislators did not want to see continuing problems on the state’s nearly 200-mile-long coast. Only Folly Beach was exempted from some requirements of the law at the time because erosion there is believed to have been caused by the Charleston Harbor jetties, which keep the channel passable for ships but cut off sand down the beach.
This year, momentum to change the law also is attributable to the lack of consensus by environmentalists, who normally fight to protect beaches and wetlands.
The Conservation Voters of South Carolina agreed recently to a Senate compromise allowing the Debordieu seawall to be built or repaired during the next three years only. The S.C. Coastal Conservation League then backed the deal with Sen. Ray Cleary, a Murrells Inlet Republican who has supported the Conservation Voters on other bills.
Other environmental organizations, namely the Sierra Club and the S.C. Environmental Law Project, do not support the bill – or the compromise – but insiders say the fracture has weakened the green movement’s unified front in the Legislature.