South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

DHEC says no to Wild Dunes sea walls as groups sue to bring them down
December 10th, 2016

By Bo Petersen and Andrew Knittle

State regulators gave a preliminary no Thursday to the use of the removable sea walls guarding millions of dollars worth of beachfront property at the Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board approved a staff recommendation to open public comment and hold a public hearing on a staff decision not to allow the walls and have the existing devices removed from three properties at the resort on Isle of Palms, as well as several properties on Harbor Island near Beaufort.

The decision will go to a 60-day public comment period and a public hearing before a final board decision early next year. Stakeholders expect the final decision to be appealed in court.

The denial, after two years of the walls helping keep the high seas from sweeping into the carport under the erosion imperiled Ocean Club Villas, left property owners president Brian Hall at a loss for words.

"I don't understand why, when the only other alternative is sand bags, and the wave dissipation devices are superior to sand bags," he said.

The devices consist of vertically set pipes and connecting strip panels that leave openings. The idea is to break up the storm waves that cause the worst beach erosion but allow water and fine sand to pass back and forth between the pipes, simulating the flow on an unobstructed beach. It does not prevent erosion but keeps it in check.

The first of them was placed in 2013. Sections have been removed and reset, added to or taken away since. A total of more than 1,000 feet of them are now in place, in one, two and three-tiered assemblies. They technically are not legal; state law prohibits seawalls in most cases. But state legislative action mandated they be allowed as a study.

The study by DHEC and contracted engineers indicated they didn't sufficiently shore up the beach, exacerbated erosion in spots and caused erosive scouring, Blair Williams, DHEC permitting director, told the board.

“When you get into the details of the data, it’s showing that the wave dissipation device, during erosive times, when you want something in there to protect your property, it’s not working,” he said.

“Staff is therefore recommending that this technology, methodology or structure not be approved for future use or continued use at these pilot locations or additional locations,” he added.

The decision came as environmental groups Sierra Club and S.C. Wildlife Federation have filed a notice of intent to sue the agency in federal court. The groups are waging a legal battle over whether the devices endanger nesting sea turtles, which are protected species. The device design team, which is working with The Citadel researchers, contends they don't.

The groups are likely to continue with the suit, said attorney Amy Armstrong, with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which is representing them. The board overturned a staff recommendation to remove the walls at the end of the study period last July, while that staff decision was being legally challenged, she said.

VIDEO Warmer spring weather on the way Pause Mute Current Time 0:04 / Duration Time 2:48 Loaded: 0%Progress: 0% Fullscreen "Any board action could be challenged, which could result in the (devices) remaining in place through 2017 nesting season, we believe we must continue to pursue the federal action. I don't expect that our clients would be willing to dismiss the case unless and until there is a final determination from the state that the walls come down, and they are in fact removed," she said.

DHEC has described the devices as an alternative to sea bags, which are the standard beachfront protection, allowed temporarily under emergency orders.

“These things are temporary protection … and what they’re really doing, even sandbags, is giving people a false sense of security,” Williams said of the wave dissipation systems, adding that “re-nourishment” of beach sand is the best long-term solution.

Sandbags tend to lose sand, wash away and litter nearby beaches, despite patrols to clean them up after storm tides. They shored up the Wild Dunes properties before the walls, creating a controversy with the litter, and have been placed again off and on as the walls have gone through permitting and re-permitting.

With or without the walls, persistent storm tides now swamp the bags, scouring sand from underneath them, washing over swimming pools and under buildings.

The tides have eaten away almost all of the green of the resort golf course's signature 18th hole.

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