Residents of an exclusive gated community who want to put tons of boulders on a public beach lost a court battle this week that could delay plans to protect their homes from rising seas and coastal erosion.
In a ruling Wednesday, an administrative law judge blocked Debordieu property owners from installing rock groins that they say will stabilize the eroding beach in Georgetown County.
The groins, which are rock and concrete walls, would extend several hundred feet across the beach and into the ocean to trap sand. The three groins would be developed in tandem with a privately funded beach renourishment project at Debordieu, a community south of Myrtle Beach near Georgetown.
Judge Ralph King Anderson III’s ruling is believed to be one of the first decisions based on a new state law that was intended to make development easier in South Carolina.
Before the law changed in 2018, legal challenges to a project --- like the one planned for Debordieu -- usually halted construction until the case was resolved in administrative court.
The new law provides an easier path for developers to begin projects before legal challenges have been resolved. Under the new law, people fighting development projects in the administrative court must prove that the work will hurt the public interest and do “irreparable harm’’ if a project begins before the court case is resolved.
In this case, environmentalists persuaded Anderson to see it their way.. The judge sided with environmentalists in ruling that the rock groins could not be installed until after the court dispute is over.
This week’s ruling comes as battles simmer in South Carolina over how to deal with the effects of global warming and rising sea levels. The state’s economy is heavily dependent on revenue from coastal tourism, and many oceanfront landowners are fighting to protect their investments from rising seas. Rock groins, which run across beaches and into the ocean, are among the methods being sought to protect beaches and homes. Seawalls, which run parallel to the beach, are another method of protecting oceanfront development.
Gov. Henry McMaster has formed a special flood commission that offered a menu of recommendations earlier this week on how to deal with rising seas and intense storms.
In the Debordieu case, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Belle W. Baruch Foundation said developing the groin project would limit beach access and cause worse erosion down the coast on property the foundation owns. That property is full of nearly pristine beaches and wetlands, and includes the University of South Carolina’s acclaimed Baruch Marine Laboratory. The league and Baruch are challenging state permits.
Anderson agreed to prevent development of the rock groins until the case is heard on its merits, saying he had not heard convincing evidence to launch the work. But his ruling was not a complete victory for the league and Hobcaw. Anderson said Debordieu can seek a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit it also needs for the work and begin initial efforts to launch the project, short of putting in the groins.
The full case won’t be argued in court until February, with a decision not expected for months after that.
“The protection of the public’s access to and use of the beach weighs in favor’’ of the league and Hobcaw, he wrote in a 15-page opinion.
Anderson’s ruling also said that if he allowed the rock groins to be installed before the case is concluded, Debordieu might not have the money to remove the structures if it lost the case. Removing the rocks could cost at least $750,000, but Debordieu has only $250,000 committed to removal, he said.
Amy Armstrong, a lawyer representing the league and Hobcaw, said the judge made the right decision in preventing the rock groins from being installed before the legal case is resolved.
“To us it seems like an obvious thing,’’ said Armstrong, who is with the non-profit S.C. Environmental Law Project. “When you have heavy equipment up and down the beach putting millions of tons of rocks and structures in the ocean, it is not harmless. The judge seemed to take issue with that.’’
Tom Moon, an attorney and president of the Debordieu Colony Community Association, said the property owners were encouraged that they can continue preparations for the project on Debordieu’s southern-most stretch of beach.
“We certainly need the groins,’’ Moon said. “We have suffered and will continue to suffer severe erosion on this beach.’’
Many property owners at Debordieu say the groins and renourishment project are needed to protect their homes from rising sea levels. They say Debordieu has a major impact on the local economy and the project will help preserve that. The rock walls would help hold sand from the renourishment project in place longer, Moon said. Renourishment projects pump extra sand on beaches to make them wider, which protects oceanfront homes and buildings.
A recent letter from a Debordieu property owner to the Coastal Observer newspaper said “Erosion and sea level rise present a real and serious challenge for many locations in Georgetown County as well as the entire South Carolina coast. For low country sites with property close to the beach, periodic additions of sand through nourishment and groins are absolutely essential and represent responsible stewardship.’’
The issue of whether to establish groins at Debordieu has raged for parts of the past decade. Property owners have in the past received state permits to install groins, but never built them amid court challenges and questions about how to pay for the structures.
Debordieu property owners have fought other erosion battles through the years. They are also pushing the Legislature to let them rebuild a sagging seawall that juts far onto the beach, protecting dozens of homes that face flooding from the ocean as the earth’s climate changes and the sea level rises.