South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Kiawah developer denied permits for Capt. Sams Spit sea walls
December 10th, 2014

KIAWAH ISLAND - The state Supreme Court has ruled against granting a permit for a seawall and revetment on Capt. Sam's Spit - the wildlife-rich, 150-acre spit that is a prized piece of disappearing natural coast.

The 3-2 vote announced Wednesday reversed and remanded an earlier Supreme Court decision that allowed the walls, and is the third divided vote by the court on the issue. The walls were sought by Kiawah Development Partners to build an access road across a neck of land to high ground where 50 luxury homes are planned.

"As recognized by the General Assembly, there is often great value in allowing nature to take its course, rather than having our coast become an armored, artificial landscape," said Justice Kaye Hearn. Other justices said the court should defer to administrative agencies to make the decision.

Without the walls, the road and homes apparently cannot be built; the road right of way narrowly fits the usable ground on the neck at the edge of the eroding Kiawah River bank. The walls were a half-mile long concrete revetment, or porous seawall, along the riverbank and a shorter, underground steel wall through the spit itself.

Like other inlet areas, Captain Sam's is continually reshaped by waves and wind. Currently, it is eroding along the riverbank while the beach across the neck is gaining sand. Because of that, the state in 1999 moved its setback, or "do not build" line, seaward enough to provide room for the road.

KDP staffers earlier said that's what launched development plans on the spit. But they acknowledged at the time the risk of erosion or storms damaging or destroying the road.

KDP is prepared to return the remanded case to the state Administrative Law Court where it began, and address concerns raised by the justices, said spokesman Mike Touhill. "Kiawah Partners will continue to pursue the development of Captain Sam's as allowed under its current entitlements in the same environmentally sensitive manner that we have the rest of Kiawah for the past 40 years."

Dana Beach of the environmental advocacy group, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, called the reversal decision monumental.

It not only protects the spit but "broadly affirms the public's primary interest in the marshes and tidelands that define and enrich the Lowcountry," he said. It also protects taxpayers from having to bail out developers or owners if the infrastructure eroded or was damaged on the unstable sandbar, he said.

Sidi Limehouse, a farmer on nearby Johns Island and a member of Friends of Kiawah River, said the next step is to raise the money needed to buy the spit and protect it.

The spit is a teardrop-shaped sand strip along Capt. Sam's Inlet between Kiawah and Seabrook islands. It was left undeveloped while most of the rest of the island was built on, and is now one of the few undeveloped barrier island spits the public has ready access to because of adjacent Beachwalker Park.

The spit's cape beach is a feeding ground that at times draws seabirds by the thousands. The inlet bank where the walls would be set is part of a rare strand-feeding ground, where dolphins drive schools of baitfish onto the beach and jump up after them to feed.

The developers said building would take place along only 20 high-ground acres, and that 85 percent of the spit is slated to be put under conservation easement.

The controversy became one of those high-profile Lowcountry battles between property owners and conservationists over the "best use" of land along a changeable coastline. The ruling is a turnaround from a 3-2 decision allowing the wall in 2013 and a 4-1 decision in 2011 that overruled a lower court's approval of a permit for the walls.

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