South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Kiawah developers win new permit for Captain Sam’s Spit
May 26th, 2015


KIAWAH ISLAND — State regulators have approved a new permit that would allow development of Captain Sam’s Spit. The move came a little more than five months after the state Supreme Court ruled against granting an earlier permit.

Environmental opponents characterized the move by Charlotte-based Kiawah Partners as trying to find a loophole around the court decision, and have appealed the staff decision to the Department of Health and Environmental Control board, likely setting up another protracted legal fight over the spit.

The DHEC stormwater permit was approved May 8. It provides for the construction of a sheet pile wall nearly a half-mile long that will hold up a road across the narrow neck of the spit to the high ground where 50 homes are proposed. The permit also allows preliminary work on sites for the homes. The company is calling the proposed community Cape Charles.

“In August 2011, the Town of Kiawah Island Planning Commission approved the preliminary subdivision plat for the 180-acre western end of Kiawah Island, commonly referred to as Captain Sam’s Spit. As a result of that approval, Kiawah Partners subsequently sought and received a permit from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) for the Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan. This has been a collaborative four-plus year review and analysis process between Kiawah Partners and DHEC,” spokesman Bill Hindman said in a statement.

“The plan includes an in-ground sheet pile system on the high ground, well behind the Kiawah River shoreline, and is in keeping with Kiawah Partners’ overall strategy of developing Captain Sam’s Spit in an environmentally sensitive manner,” he said.

The earlier permit would have allowed a seawall and revetment to support the road. A sheet pile wall is a hardened structure, often metal or wood, driven in the ground for support. It would differ from the revetment in that it would be built higher in the dunes, outside the riverbank’s “critical area” where the revetment was proposed. The legal fight over the revetment has centered on a critical-area permit. Those areas are coastal waters, tidelands and beach/dune systems under state jurisdiction.

Environmentalists and community groups have fought for four years to stop the project and the revetment on the fragile spit. The developers said both can be built without significantly disrupting the environment.

The sheet pile wall “is a distinction without a difference. It’s the same structure in the same place, only longer and bigger,” said Amy Armstrong of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which has appealed the new permit on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

One provision of the Supreme Court ruling is that DHEC has to consider the long-range impact of a project on the environment of coastal zone, and that extends beyond the critical area, she said.

The permit approval “flies in the face of the previous (DHEC) board decision, flies in the face of the Supreme Court decision,” she said. “DHEC has done a 180 in authorizing a nearly identical structure in function to the one it denied several years ago. And the erosion at the river has only gotten worse, further evidence that this is an unstable and unwise place to build. “

Captain Sam’s Spit is a wildlife-rich, 150-acre sand strip along Captain Sam’s Inlet between Kiawah and Seabrook islands. Like other inlet areas, it is continually reshaped by waves and wind, eroding and accreting.

The spit 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 the adjacent Beachwalker Park.

The current plan would not impact the park, but the developers have talked with Tom O’Rourke, Charleston County Park and Recreation director, about moving the park to an adjoining site, to clear a route to the spit, O’Rourke said.

The spit is prized for conservation and recreation because its cape beach is a feeding ground that, at times, draws seabirds by the thousands. Its inlet beaches are part of a rare strand-feeding ground, where dolphins drive schools of baitfish onto the beach and jump up after them to feed.

For Kiawah Partners, the spit is one of few remaining undeveloped beachfront properties left on the largely gated resort island. Company representatives have said building would take place along only 20 acres, and 85 percent of the spit is slated to be put under conservation easement.

The state Supreme Court in December ruled against granting a permit for a seawall and revetment for the access road. The court returned the case to the state Administrative Law Court, where it’s one of three lawsuits regarding the development with hearings pending.

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