South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

SCELP is working to defend the integrity of SC's Beachfront Management Act
Posted: April 2, 2014

COLUMBIA, SC — When ocean waves blast the seawall at Debordieu Beach, resort homes shake and nervous property owners wonder if their houses will one day wash into the Atlantic.

Several dozen high-end homes, some featuring European stone masonry and elevators, lie behind the seawall that for 33 years has shielded the Georgetown County resort from flooding.

Now, Debordieu’s wooden seawall is failing. And homeowners are asking the state to help them protect their investments.

But the homeowners’ plea to replace much of their seawall could change nearly three decades of established coastal law. That law forbids new seawalls, hard structures that block public access and often make beach erosion worse.

The plan, written into a bill that now is before the state Senate, would not only allow Debordieu to rebuild the 4,000-foot -long bulkhead, but it could let the community erect a wall farther out on the shore. A new wall would be 1.5 to 2 feet beyond the old wall, according to one engineer’s report.

If the law passes as proposed, other eroding beach communities could seek the same exemptions from South Carolina’s 1988 seawall ban – and that’s a concern, critics say.

“It’s a remarkable departure from the law that has existed since 1988,” said Amy Armstrong, who heads the S.C. Environmental Law Project, a non-profit legal service in Georgetown.

“We decided at the time they were bad things and we shouldn’t build any new seawalls. So why are we allowing a completely new one to be built?”

Wayne Beam, a lobbyist hired by property owners at Debordieu, said the answer is simple.

“The gist of what I’m trying to do is help save the houses,” Beam said.

Beam, who was director of the state’s coastal program when the seawall ban passed, said this year’s bill would allow people to reconstruct a failing structure, rather than a build a new wall in a spot that never had one.

Beverly Freeman, a retired Coca Cola company executive who owns a $2 million lot and beach house behind the seawall, said property owners want to make major repairs on sections of the wall, rather than build a new one. Regardless of how people view the issue, she and Beam said the stakes are high.

“Are we going to use semantics to stand by and let the people’s houses fall in?” Beam asked.

The Legislature adopted South Carolina’s seawall ban in 1988 after a series of unusually high tides and winter storms washed away pools, decks and other oceanfront property along the Grand Strand.

After Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 and caused even worse damage, the Legislature watered down parts of the law to allow reconstruction of homes. But the state held firm on the seawall ban, mostly because the hard structures worsen beach erosion. Under the law, no new seawalls can be built and only minor repairs are allowed to existing structures.

Rising seas

Debordieu, a gated community south of Myrtle Beach near Georgetown, has been a flashpoint for beach erosion disputes in recent years. At high tide, the ocean covers the beach at Debordieu’s lower end as waves hit the seawall. Behind the wall lie homes valued at $1 million to $3 million. All told, the property would be worth up to $60 million on the real estate market, according to a Debordieu newsletter published recently.

In 2011, Debordieu lawyers persuaded the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to allow groins that run into the ocean as part of a plan to trap sand and stabilize the beach. The community also planned a renourishment project to protect homes from the sea. In each case, the plans fell apart because of a shortage of funds.

While this year’s seawall plan is the latest effort to buffer homes from the Atlantic Ocean, Debordieu isn’t the only oceanfront area struggling with erosion in South Carolina. Seaside towns from North Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head Island see evidence of rising sea levels, which chew up beaches that are lined with billions of dollars in resort property.

Some areas, however. are worse than others. And as funds dwindle to replenish and widen beaches by pumping sand from offshore, the issue of new seawalls has begun to re-emerge.

Folly Beach has in recent years struggled with how to protect property where the ocean is washing beneath beach houses. This year, residents at the Isle of Palms have pushed lawmakers to approve a different kind of wall to repel waves. That wall, known as a wave dissipation device, is supposed to protect property while allowing sand and waves to flow through it.

Like the proposal at Debordieu, the Wild Dunes wall has been criticized by some lawmakers and coastal geologists as being little more than an erosion-worsening seawall.

Both the Debordieu seawall and the Wild Dunes wave wall would be allowed under a bill that was originally intended to limit new development farther out on the beaches of South Carolina. The original bill, based in part on about five years of studies by scientists and state policymakers, now includes exemptions that have caused environmental groups to reverse position and fight the legislation.

“It is special interest legislation, which is wrong in and of itself,” the Coastal Conservation League’s Nancy Cave said. “I wonder how you give something to one group and not to another. I can’t imagine this would hold up in court. It is a slippery slope. The bill has lost its strength to protect the coast.”

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina also is against the amended legislation.

“The sea is rising and there is a risk when you have beachfront property,” Conservation Voters director Ann Timberlake said, noting that the Debordieu seawall exemption may not end the debate.

State Sen. Ray Cleary, a Murrells Inlet Republican whose district includes Debordieu, said the seawall amendment simply lets about 40 property owners behind the wall put back what they already have. That, he said, is reasonable and in the spirit of a beach blue ribbon study panel he recently served on. He also noted that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s coastal division “was comfortable with it.”

Overall, Cleary said the bill will actually help protect state beaches. A key component is a prohibition on moving a state building restriction line seaward. The bill’s chances of passing are uncertain. It moved quickly through a Senate committee after the amendments were added. But a handful of legislators have voiced concerns. It also needs House approval to become law.

Worried property owners

Those who advocate changing the law for Debordieu are associated with a little-known group called “Friends of Georgetown County Beaches,” which records show hired Beam to lobby the Legislature this year. The group’s members were not available last week, but Freeman is listed as the contact person.

In an interview Friday, Freeman said most of the property owners behind the seawall belong to the friends group. She said she prefers not to build a new seawall, but make repairs that are not now allowed under South Carolina’s coastal law.

“It’s expensive enough just to maintain the sucker,” Freeman said.

State law allows only limited repairs to seawalls. If any stretch of a wall in front of a person’s house is damaged more than 50 percent, it cannot be rebuilt under current law, she and Beam said.

An engineer working with Beam on the seawall plan estimated that building a new seawall would require construction to be done 18 inches to 24 inches in front of the old one, closer to the ocean, to make sure construction workers aren’t hurt. Working behind the failing wall could be dangerous, engineer Mike Kirby said in a March 5 note to Beam.

Armstrong, with the Environmental Law Project, questioned whether that is legal since state beaches are public.

Freeman, who moved from Atlanta to Debordieu about 12 years ago, said she’s not as worried about the failing wall as some neighbors. She owns a 5,900 square foot, four-bedroom home that is set back from the seawall. But her neighbor, John L. Jackson of Hopkins, owns a 3,100-square-foot home next door that is much closer to the seawall.

Jackson, a retired businessman who now lives in Lower Richland, said the Debordieu seawall “was never designed to withstand the beating it is taking now.”

He built his house in 1979, about two years before the seawall was built. The beach in front of his house was 300 feet wide, with plenty of dry sand to walk on, he said. Now, waves crash against the wall every day, reminding him of a seismic event.

“It shakes the house, it wakes you up at night,” Jackson said. “ I have an earthquake every time a wave hits.”

Jackson, who describes himself as an environmentalist, said property owners at Debordieu are not trying to hurt the beach, but protect their homes until they can find money for a beach renourishment project. The wider beach from renourishment would both protect their homes and give beachgoers dry sand to walk on, he said. Now, the beach is flooded with water below the seawall at high tide.

“We pay a lot of state taxes and local taxes down there,” he said. “This is not an easy thing. No one down there wants a stronger seawall, everyone wants sand on the beach. Until we can get sand on the beach, this bill allows us to do what is necessary to protect the homes, which protect the tax base of South Carolina.”

(Article and photo courtesy of The State)