South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Kiawah Island project wins support from lawmakers
December 1st, 2015


COLUMBIA, SC For a decade, developers at Kiawah Island have sought to build high-end homes on a narrow sand spit that environmentalists say is too fragile — and too close to the ocean — to support the construction project.

On Tuesday, Kiawah Development Partners II won an important victory in the state Legislature. A Senate committee voted unanimously to remove language from a bill that could have stopped the company’s development effort at Captain Sam’s spit south of Charleston.

The vote by the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee pleased representatives of the development company, but critics said legislators are making a mistake in failing to hold the line against oceanfront development at a time of rising sea levels.

“This has broader implications for the coast of South Carolina,’’ environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong said. “It is just not good policy to build closer to the ocean. It’s not safe. It puts people and structures in harm’s way.’’

Up for discussion Tuesday was a bill intended to stop new development projects from being built closer to the ocean.

The bill would have prevented state regulators from ever moving a building restriction line toward the ocean so that development could occur closer to the sea.

That line has, in the past, been moved toward the ocean after taxpayer-funded beach renourishment projects artificially widened the seashore. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which sets the line, reasons that when beaches build up — whether naturally or artificially — the line can be moved toward the sea.

But moving the line seaward has allowed some new development in areas where building had previously been prohibited. Environmentalists and coastal geologists say all beaches will erode at some point, exposing coastal development to devastation from high seas that could cause taxpayers to bail out property owners’.development projects.

At Kiawah Island, developers oppose freezing the building restriction line because they say the beach is building up naturally. They want the flexibility to have the line moved seaward to provide more room for the project. A key concern for developers is whether they will have room to build a road considered vital to serve about 50 homes they plan to build at Captain Sam’s spit.

Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, said the initial bill was filled with problems that had little chance of passing the Legislature. He also said the Kiawah Island project “is made more controversial than it should be.’’

Efforts to restore the bill as originally proposed are expected when it reaches the full Senate.

In addition to their effort in the legislature, Kiawah developers remain involved in a series of legal skirmishes with environmentalists over the Captain Sam’s project, first proposed in 2005. DHEC has approved building a seawall to protect the development from erosion, but the S.C. Environmental Law Project and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League are challenging that.

Trenholm Walker, a Charleston lawyer representing project developers, declined comment after Tuesday’s meeting in Columbia. But conservationists Katie Zimmerman and Rebecca Haynes said it’s hard to understand why the Senate committee voted against freezing the building restriction line, given what the environmentalists said is broad support for holding the line against oceanfront development.

A state advisory committee in 2013 recommended freezing the building restriction line permanently. That same year a report from a team of scientists and university researchers predicted sea levels would rise 1 to 5 feet along the South Atlantic coast by the end of the 21st century.

“The only opposition (to freezing the line) we are seeing is from people who want to see development happen on a spit of sand,’’ said Haynes, who is with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.

Campbell, who served on the advisory committee that recommended freezing the line, said more up-to-date data is needed before any change is made. He said he spoke with developers earlier this year about the bill, but not recently.

The bill also includes minor changes to the state’s beach management law that are expected to sail through now that the freeze on the building restriction line has been removed. “This bill has got a lot of good things in it,’’ Campbell said.

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