Politics & Government

SC wildlife agency chief in trouble with governor, regulators over seawalls near home

The chairman of the board at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has run into trouble with Gov. Henry McMaster and state coastal regulators over the construction of seawalls along the oceanfront near his beach house in Georgetown County.

DNR board chairman Norman Pulliam lobbied this past week to help property owners at Debordieu Beach rebuild a seawall they say will protect their waterfront investments from the ocean. But McMaster’s office ordered Pulliam, a governor’s appointee, to stop the lobbying because the governor didn’t want to ease state restrictions on seawalls at Debordieu.

Pulliam does not own a house on the Debordieu oceanfront but has friends there. He owns a second home at nearby South Litchfield Beach, where a new seawall in front of his house is drawing scrutiny from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Like Debordieu, South Litchfield is eroding and homes are threatened by the ocean.

The Legislature banned new seawalls in the late 1980s because the rock, concrete and wooden structures make beach erosion worse, giving the public less room to walk on and imperiling wildlife that needs a sandy beach. McMaster vetoed legislation that would have given the Debordieu property owners a temporary exemption from the state’s more than 30-year-old seawall ban.

“Staff members explained we were on one side of that bill and he (Pulliam) was on the other, and we would like him to recognize that position,’’ McMaster said Tuesday. The governor and Pulliam said the DNR board chairman quit speaking in favor of the Debordieu seawall after the meeting with the governor’s staff.

Meanwhile, Pulliam’s family beach house is one of 16 under scrutiny over the construction of wooden bulkheads, or seawalls, along the oceanfront at South Litchfield Beach, just a few miles up the coast from Debordieu, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Information released Friday by DHEC says the agency discovered 11 of the bulkheads in January and found another five in March and April. The agency has ordered some of the wooden walls removed and is working with the remaining property owners, the department said in an email.

“The Department continues to work with the property owners on progress towards compliance of this matter to avoid further action,’’ according to the email from DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby.

Reached Friday, Pulliam said property owners at Debordieu and South Litchfield are simply trying to protect their homes from the ocean. Pulliam said his wall was one of the last built on South Litchfield, a gated community across an inlet from Pawleys Island.

“We want to protect what we can as long as we can,’’ Pulliam said. “I made a major investment when I built this house. It’s a retirement home.’’

The Pulliam home is among about 30 on South Litchfield’s southern spit, the narrowest part of the landscape in the area, according to Georgetown County property records. In recent years, three to four major storms have washed away protective dunes, destroyed walkways and shrubbery, and he’s had to replace his irrigation system, Pulliam said. The wall prevents sand from washing beneath his home, he said. Property records show the home is worth about $2.6 million.

Emily Cedzo, who tracks coastal issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, declined comment on Pulliam but she said conservationists expect an attempt in the Legislature next year to ease state building restrictions along the oceanfront.

The future of the state’s ban on seawalls has been of increasing discussion in recent years as money to renourish beaches has become harder to get. Without renourishment to spread more sand on the shore, seawalls would become the next way to help buffer homes from rising sea levels and more intense storms, which are resulting from the earth’s changing climate.

In his situation, Pulliam said the owners of the more than 30 oceanfront lots at South Litchfield don’t have $12 million to widen the beach with extra sand, which would better protect their homes from the ocean. Pulliam said the Legislature might amend the state’s coastal law next year.

“I’ve had a bunch of legislators come to me — two called this morning — who say ‘We want to help write something everybody up and down the coast can live with,’ ’’ said Pulliam, who said he’s “very much a conservationist’’ but people have a right to protect their homes.

Pulliam, a Spartanburg resident, is widely regarded for his charitable work and his efforts to save land from development across South Carolina. In a recent Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce video honoring him for his work in the community, recently retired DNR director Alvin Taylor called Pulliam “a man that has much integrity, and does what he says.’’

Of his lobbying efforts in the Legislature this past week, Pulliam said he was glad to stop advocating to allow the Debordieu seawall after McMaster’s office explained its concerns. He said he was trying to help friends at Debordieu. The Legislature did not override McMaster’s veto.

Debordieu Beach is an exclusive community between Myrtle Beach and Georgetown. Property owners on the island’s extreme south end have fought for years to repair the battered seawall that they say has protected their investments.

But the failing seawall juts well onto the public beach and critics say it should not be replaced. Otherwise, it will continue to block access along the shore while making erosion worse, a particular concern as sea level rises. When hit by the ocean, seawalls tend to speed up beach erosion.

Some conservationists say Pulliam should have steered clear of talking to the Legislature this past week. The Department of Natural Resources is one of three primary state agencies that deal with environmental issues, and part of its mission is to protect coastal resources.

Sea turtles that need sandy beaches to nest on can be blocked by seawalls, environmentalist Bob Guild said. Guild said McMaster should not have had to order Pulliam to stop lobbying for seawalls.

“How ironic is it that you would have an agency head whose job it is protecting endangered species like sea turtles, essentially arguing for exceptions for structures like this,’’ Guild said. “Did he need to be told that?’’

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.