COLUMBIA, SC A gated resort community with an eroding beach scored the victory it had been seeking Wednesday when state lawmakers agreed to change South Carolina law so property owners can rebuild a 4,000-foot seawall.
The battered wall at DeBordieu Beach protects fewer than 25 high-end houses from rising seas, but shoreline erosion is so severe that legislators have stepped in at the homeowners’ request – despite criticism that a new seawall could establish a bad precedent.
The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to help the property owners under a plan that critics say could wreck South Carolina’s quarter-century-old ban on new seawalls. Seawalls protect what’s behind them but worsen beach erosion.
Buried in the state budget, the measure gives the property owners a year to gain approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to reconstruct the bulkhead.
The House approved the state budget, which included the DeBordieu proviso, Wednesday afternoon. The Senate drafted the seawall plan and approved the budget later Wednesday. Gov Nikki Haley still must sign off on the budget.
The House’s action was not a surprise given the barrage of legislation targeted at helping the DeBordieu property owners, many of them respected business people known to lawmakers. Three separate measures were introduced in the Senate this year to allow for the seawall – including the budget proviso – which increased chances one of them would pass.
Still, Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said including the seawall reconstruction allowance in the budget caught the House off guard.
“I should have suspected that,” he said. “Nobody disclosed this. This was a one-sized budget amendment that everybody had a few minutes to consider. That’s not good faith. That is quite deceptive to not share something as contentious as this is.”
The amendment was inserted into the Senate version of the budget at the urging of Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown County Republican whose district includes DeBordieu and its oceanfront homes. Senators approved the DeBordieu seawall proviso last month and sent it to the House.
Critics of the plan were disappointed after winning an earlier victory in the House. Wednesday morning, the House voted 64-42 to kill a resolution allowing the aging wall to be rebuilt at DeBordieu, a community south of Myrtle Beach where waves crash against the wooden bulkhead daily.
“This would be the worst precedent we could set with respect to armoring beaches,” said Dana Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “It would be essentially sacrificing the public beaches for a few beach houses that were built in the wrong place.”
The Legislature banned seawalls under the 1988 beach management act because the hard structures make beach erosion worse when pounded by waves. Approving a new seawall for DeBordieu could prompt other ocean-threatened communities to seek the same consideration, critics say.
DeBordieu’s 33-year-old seawall juts far onto the shore, leaving little dry-sand beach for the public to walk on. In some cases, water has been so high that beachcombers have climbed atop the bulkhead to walk from one part of DeBordieu to another.
People who own resort homes behind the seawall say their houses could flood if the wall fails. They have said their homes shake when waves hit the wall. Some hired an influential former coastal regulator to lobby the Legislature and hosted lawmakers this spring to show first-hand the problems they face with the sea.
The legislation was intended to help “folks that own houses on the coast that are in the line of fire from the waves and water,” Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, said, noting that they will spend their own money to fix the seawall. DeBordieu also plans a beach renourishment project to widen the shore, he said.
Hiott and Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry, were among a number of lawmakers who met with DeBordieu property owners. Hardwick, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, led efforts to approve the seawall resolution Wednesday morning.
DeBordieu is a community of about 1,200 homes south of Myrtle Beach between Pawleys Island and Georgetown. Parts of the beach are wide and stable, but the lower end is being eaten away by the ocean.
South Carolina’s battle over the seawall comes amid concern about climate change and its affect on sea levels, which are rising and beginning to threaten oceanfront property. Sea levels are expected to rise 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century along the Southeast coast, a recent national climate study found.