South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Kiawah developers seek help from Legislature to build on barrier island
January 29th, 2015

Six weeks after the state Supreme Court ruled against them, developers planning high-end homes on a storm-threatened island near Charleston took their case to the state Legislature in another attempt to start the project.

If approved by the Legislature, a bill intended to prevent building closer to the ocean would hinder plans for the project at Captain Sam’s spit on Kiawah Island – and developers said that wouldn’t be fair to them.

Kiawah Development Partners has proposed building about 50 houses on the spit, which is connected to the rest of the island by a narrow neck of sand where they want to construct a road.

“Kiawah Partners is particularly concerned about what may be a significant adverse economic effect,’’ said Trenholm Walker, a lawyer representing the company.

During testimony before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Walker said the project would be a “modest” residential development on about 20 acres.

Without permission to follow through with the Kiawah Island building plans, Charleston County could lose tax revenue, developers said. The project could bring some $10 million in property taxes, said Chris Randolph, a partner with South Street Partners, which owns Kiawah Partners.

Randolph, who said his company is from Charlotte, said it was attracted to develop along the South Carolina coast because of the state’s “business-friendly political climate.’’ He urged the committee not to approve the bill, which would prevent seaside development farther out onto the beach.

Thursday’s pitch from Walker and Randolph follows a stinging blow by the Supreme Court to the more than decade-old development plan south of Charleston. The court ruled Dec. 10 that developers could not construct a massive seawall on the back end of Captain Sam’s spit, along the Kiawah River, to help protect about 50 homes that would be built.

The court said the seawall, which environmentalists contended would erode a popular beach on the river side of the spit, would only benefit the developer and was not in the public interest. But Nancy Vinson, a longtime project opponent, said developers have since made another request to build a riverside wall.

Now, they also are looking for flexibility to build farther out on the beach on the ocean side of the island, Vinson said.

“They need all the land they can get’’ for the project, she said, noting that developers “don’t have enough width for the road.’’

She also said “they are not undoing the Supreme Court decision, they are just circumventing it.’’

The bill before the Senate is intended to stop the march toward the ocean of intense development when beaches grow wider. South Carolina’s 1988 beach law called for a gradual “retreat’’ of new development from the ocean because of the threat storms and eroding beaches present.

When storms wash over oceanfront buildings, taxpayers often wind up spending money to bail out homeowners. Allowing development farther on the beach also can make erosion worse and limit beach access by covering up the shores frequented by vacationers.

The bill would forever prevent the state from moving a building restriction line seaward, starting in July of this year. In the past, state regulators have allowed the line to be moved seaward after taxpayer-funded beach renourishment projects artificially widened seashores. That has allowed for high-rise hotels in places such as Cherry Grove, north of Myrtle Beach. That forces taxpayers to either continue to fund renourishment projects to protect the bigger structures or bail out landowners after big storms roar in.

In this case, Kiawah developers say their shores are actually building up naturally, so the state should not freeze the building restriction line in 2015. They want the ability to move the line so they can develop the project and build a road to the houses.

But Vinson said building at Captain Sam’s spit is foolhardy because the beach one day will begin eroding again – and the back of the island already is washing away.

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