South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Access eroding to embattled Kiawah spit, study says
May 29th, 2016

By Bo Peterson

KIAWAH ISLAND — The narrow neck to Captain Sam’s Spit is disappearing, survey work has indicated. The dunes there aren’t tall enough to withstand a tropical cyclone of any real strength.

The findings could put a big hole in Kiawah Partners’ contention before regulators that the beach there is growing, and a road to its proposed development should be permitted. That means a bill up for a House vote in the coming week might be decisive in the near decade-long regulatory and legal wrangling over the proposed road to the development.

The state Senate-passed bill would keep a regulatory setback line — restricting how close to a beach you can build — from being moved inland as of the end of 2017. The line could determine whether there’s enough legal space to build the controversial road across the narrow neck access to the spit, where Kiawah Partners plans to build 50 homes.

The company has contended it has enough high ground to build the road but has lobbied legislators to delay or change the setback bill. Language still in the bill allows a coastal landowner that feels the setback line was established in error to have a review of the decision.

“The neck is eroding from the river. It is accreting on the beach, but not as fast. Overall the neck is getting narrower,” said Leslie Sautter, College of Charleston geology professor, whose students conducted the survey. “Even more important, the elevation of the dunes at the neck is really low. If a major storm hit it today, it would wash over the neck and probably breach it.”

The company would not comment on the survey because its staff hasn’t seen it, and would not comment on the bill until the Legislature takes action, said spokesman Bill Hindman. The latest survey from the state’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management shows 400 feet between the river and beach where a road could be built, he said.

“There has been no overwash or breach at Captain Sams for over 66 years, and that includes Hurricane Hugo,” Hindman said.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control staff is aware that the configuration of the spit is changing but had not been notified of any specific erosional concerns, spokesman Robert Yanity said last week.

The spit is a wildlife-rich, 150-acre sand strip along Capt. Sam’s Inlet between Kiawah and Seabrook islands. It was left alone while most of the rest of the island was developed, and is now one of the few undeveloped barrier island spits the public has ready access to because of the adjacent Beachwalker Park.

Kiawah Partners 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.

Conservation interests say the spit is too fragile for development. 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 diamondback terrapin turtles nest and dolphins drive schools of baitfish onto the beach, jumping after them to feed.

State permits for the proposed access road, as well as a wall and a porous revetment along the eroding riverbank to protect it, have become focuses of ongoing legal battles between the developers and conservationists.

Attorney Amy Armstrong, of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, said there is a good chance the group would use the college survey and other recent environmental evaluations of the spit as evidence in arguments against building the wall for the road.

Kiawah Partners had sought to delay fixing the setback line until 2020, to allow a periodic DHEC review that could move it inland. That review, which covers the entire coast, has not started.

“We are continuing to evaluate a schedule that would provide the most efficiency for accomplishing the task,” Yanity said.

The fight over the bill spurred amendments, counter-amendments and a stymieing legislative objection before the 2017 compromise was reached by the Senate in April, in a move so surprising that interests for neither the company nor the conservationists were in the chamber for the vote .

If the spit is developed, Beachwalker Park’s parking and beach access would be preserved, but its makeup could well change, both the developers and Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission staff have said.

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