The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s board on Thursday suspended all but $110,000 of a $749,000 fine against an Isle of Palms property owners’ group that knowingly built an illegal seawall.
The remainder of the fine would be reinstated if the Wild Dunes Ocean Club Villas violate any other coastal management requirements in their effort to protect their buildings perched on a highly erosional beach.
Mary Shahid, the attorney for the Ocean Club Villas board, had advocated a reduction to around a $50,000 fine. She said the property owners’ board built the seawall out of desperation and without the consent of the other property owners in the development.
DHEC director Catherine Templeton took the rare step of testifying before the board on her staff’s behalf.
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“The bottom line is there is a law in place, and it is our job to enforce that law,” Templeton said. “They put up an illegal wall, they covered it up, and there was no cooperation afterward.”
The DHEC board members seemed to sympathize with the property owners’ plight, but they agreed with the agency’s staff that the illegal construction couldn’t be ignored.
Board member Kenyon Wells said he generally feels property owners should be able to do what they can to protect their investment, especially if they’re doing it on their own dime. But he said the Ocean Club Villas board deserves “a fine because they knew it was wrong.”
It has been illegal since 1988 to build a new seawall on most beaches 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 in 1988 after a series of high tides on the Grand Strand in 1987.
Ocean Club Villas, part of the gated Wild Dunes resort community, is on the northern tip of the Isle of Palms, which, like the ends of most barrier islands, is subject to erosional swings when sand either builds up or washes away. In the past decade, the sand in front of the 58-unit community has been disappearing.
The agency staff first discovered the illegal wall on Sept. 10 after high waves from tropical systems uncovered the once-buried structure. They quickly issued an order that the seawall be removed. The next day, representatives of the villas who met with DHEC staff said they weren’t sure when the wall had been built. They thought it had been a couple of years earlier, said Sean Briggs, manager of the agency’s compliance and enforcement section.
The property owners group continually refused to provide details on the construction, Briggs said. So the agency based its $749,000 fine on the $1,000-per-day penalty set in law for the approximately two years they had been told the wall had been up. The wall eventually was removed Nov. 4 as the city of Isle of Palms began a renourishment effort on the beach.
Shahid said the property owners group had done everything by the rules for years. DHEC acknowledged 26 permit requests for various sand-saving projects in front of the villas in the past two decades. Although Shahid recognized the seawall was illegal, she felt the fine was outrageous.
Briggs countered that the fine was large not only to punish the property owners but also to send a message to others. “I think the penalty sends a clear message to the public that we aren’t going to turn our back on violations,” Briggs said.
Dr. Randy Smoak, a retired surgeon from Orangeburg, owns a condo in the complex and is on the board that approved the building of the seawall. He said the board felt it had to do something because “we were reaching the point of condemnation” as erosion threatened sewer and electrical lines.
“We could have challenged the law, and we did not do that,” Smoak said. “We could have built a true seawall, but we didn’t.”
Instead, they instructed a contractor to build what they considered a less permanent structure, about 160 feet long and just 20 feet from the building. “We thought that was a reasonable parameter,” Smoak said. “We felt that it would buy us a little bit of time.”
Smoak considered the wooden seawall as a temporary structure that would rot away in time. He said the board didn’t consult the condo owners but “did it on behalf of all of the owners in the best judgment for what we had at the time.”
Shahid asked the board to show some compassion for a property owners’ group that has spent $3 million since 2006 on various efforts to slow the erosion. “We have been punished way too much over the past 10 years,” Shahid said. “Mother Nature has punished us.”