An association facing a massive $750,000 state fine for building an illegal seawall near Charleston won support Thursday from regulators who could overturn penalties against the Isle of Palms property owners’ group.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s appeals committee voted 2-1 to hold a hearing on whether to cut penalties for the Wild Dunes Ocean Club Villas property owners association. The matter goes next month before the eight-member DHEC board, which includes the three appeals’ committee members who voted Thursday. Lessening penalties would go against agency staff recommendations.
Those voting Thursday for the hearing, Chuck Joye of Anderson and Mark Lutz of Mount Pleasant, said erosion had encroached on the beach at Wild Dunes and is eating away at private property. But Joye said regulations have made it difficult to protect that property from the sea.
Property owners concede they built the wall, but had no choice because the ocean threatened to destroy a condo building at the Isle of Palms. The 58-unit building protected by the seawall contains condominium units that have been valued at up to $2 million, according to association lawyers.
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“I’m troubled by this unintended consequence (of) putting this major investment at risk because of us trying to protect the entire coast of our state,” Joye said. “For that reason, I believe that there should be some consideration in lessening the fine.”
Wild Dunes is a gated resort community on the Isle of Palms near an inlet that, in recent years, has been increasingly unstable and subject to erosion. The Wild Dunes Ocean Club Villas, where one building juts well out on the beach, has experienced some of the most pronounced problems with erosion on the island.
It has been illegal since 1988 to build a new seawall in South Carolina. Concrete and wooden seawalls are effective at protecting buildings, but when hit by waves, they worsen erosion and leave less public beach for people to walk on. The Legislature banned new seawalls after a series of high tides on the Grand Strand in 1987.
DHEC staff members discovered the unapproved Isle of Palms seawall this fall, buried beneath sand bags. They then smacked the Wild Dunes Ocean Club Villas association with what’s believed to be the largest fine ever issued by DHEC’s coastal management division. Enforcement records indicate that the fine also ranks among the 10 largest by the agency since at least 1991. The seawall, built about 18 months ago, has been removed now that a beach renourishment project has begun, according to the property owners association.
Board member Clarence Batts of Spartanburg, who voted to support staff and not hold an appeals hearing, said the issues at Wild Dunes are symbolic of the continuing problem involving people who build too close to the ocean. But Batts said the state shouldn’t be asked to bail out private property owners for building in high-risk areas – particularly when they willfully break the law.
“This is the age-old issue of building a facility in a very unstable area,” Batts said. “And they admittedly built the seawall and covered it up.”
The dispute at Charleston is the latest in a series of emerging issues over the use of seawalls at a time of changing climate, rising ocean levels and limited beach renourishment funds. As they did long ago, property owners are again looking to use seawalls to save their homes and condominium buildings. Earlier this year, the Legislature approved a law allowing for construction of a seawall at Debordieu Beach, a first since 1988.
Joye, who said he had visited the Wild Dunes area for 30 years, said not allowing property owners to protect the Wild Dunes condominium building was effectively condemning the land. Wild Dunes was the site of a widely known U.S. Supreme Court case in the 1990s that ultimately forced the state to pay a property owner for effectively rendering his property worthless for development.
“It’s almost like it’s a take by the government,” Joye said.
Lutz said the Dec. 11 hearing will determine whether to cut the $750,000 fine issued by DHEC coastal staff members last month.
“The only issue to me: ‘Is it worth pursuing this to somehow address the fine?’” Lutz said.
Buddy Derrick, president of the Wild Dunes Ocean Club Villas property regime board, said erosion is a real threat to people’s investments. He applauded the DHEC appeals board for agreeing to grant a full hearing.
“I was pretty well taken aback at the size of the original fine that they levied, but I’m certainly pleased that this is going to go through a hearing and give us a chance to plead our case,” Derrick said. “As the ocean ate up closer to the building, I can only imagine how terrified people were of what might happen. I’m glad to hear at least some board members understand.”