South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

DHEC board: Experimental sea walls can stay up another year
March 13th, 2017

By Jake Lucas

The experimental erosion control devices in front of the properties most threatened by erosion in Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms will remain in place for at least another year, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board ruled last Thursday.

And the study of how well those devices work will continue, but it may be tweaked “to take into account what we’ve learned versus what we want to further learn,” board member Chuck Joye said in the motion that set forth the decision.

All four members of the six-member board present for the vote approved the motion.

The vote came after a public hearing in which the board heard from staff; lawyers representing the inventor of the device, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, and property owners; and property owners themselves. The public hearing was followed by a roughly 25 minute executive session for legal advice before the vote.

The wave dissipation system, as the devices are known, consists of removable PVC pipes that stretch horizontally between vertical piles encased in plastic to make a sort of flexible wall. The spacing between the horizontal pipes can be adjusted, and the pipes can be removed depending on the tide and wave conditions with the goal of taking the punch out of waves while still allowing some sand and water to pass through the system. It was invented by Mount Pleasant resident Deron Nettles.

But last December, staff from DHEC’s office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management told the board the system doesn’t work. They recommended that the board order the system be taken down where it’s installed and not allowed in the future. Staff made their decision based on reports from researchers at The Citadel, including engineering professor Timothy Mays, who helped develop the system; an analysis from an engineer brought on to offer an independent third-party opinion; and their own evaluation of the data from a roughly five-month study period of the system.

They argued the system does not do enough to fight erosion, has a negative impact on the beach and does not meet the provisions of the budget proviso that permitted the pilot study of the system in 2014. At the end of the public hearing Thursday, they reiterated those conclusions.

“After hearing everything, we still stand by our position,” said Blair Williams, manager of the critical area and wetland permitting section for OCRM, who presented staff’s findings to the DHEC board in December and again Thursday.

But Matt Hamrick, a lawyer representing the companies owned by Nettles, disputed staff’s interpretation of how the system performed during the study. He said they misrepresented the evaluation from The Citadel researchers and the independent engineer from GEL Engineering.

“The reports are very positive for the [wave dissipation system],” Hamrick said to the board Thursday. “They are almost entirely positive.”

As part of an appeal in the state’s Administrative Law Court of an earlier board ruling allowing the system to stay up, Hamrick and lawyers representing DHEC and property owners where the system is installed asked the two engineers about the system and their studies under oath in depositions.

Those depositions are still open as part of a compromise to allow the South Carolina Environmental Law Project to participate in them later. The Law Project filed the appeal to the Administrative Law Court on behalf of the South Carolina Sierra Club and South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

The organization also filed a lawsuit against DHEC on behalf of those other environmental groups in December claiming the wave dissipation system is harming endangered sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act by getting in the way of them nesting. The Law Project threatened the suit at the end of June, and DHEC ordered the system to come down at the end of the study period in response and after consulting the Department of Natural Resources. The board later reversed that decision, and the system has stayed up.

There are photos showing the tracks of turtles who crawled up to the wall only to turn around and crawl away, amounting to a so-called “false crawl.” But Hamrick and lawyers for property owners where the system is deployed have argued the system did not necessarily prevent those turtles from nesting. They pointed to the unsuitable nesting habitat behind the system and the thousands of false crawls recorded last year, including in places with no human interaction.

On Feb. 9, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service registered a comment on the system supporting OCRM staff’s recommendation to the board that also says it did prevent sea turtles from nesting and therefore violated the Endangered Species Act.

Amelia Thompson, a staff attorney with the Law Project, said that organization was disappointed with the board’s ruling last Thursday.

“These walls were put up as an experiment and the results of the experiment were that they failed,” she said.

At the public hearing, the property manager and president of the homeowners association board for Seascape Villas on Isle of Palms – one of the properties in front of which the system was placed – spoke in favor of it.

“As far as the wave dissipation system is concerned, I’m a believer,” Lona Vest, the property manager for Seascape Villas told the board. Vest said she has been involved with Seascape since just before Hurricane Hugo in 1989. “It’s the best thing we’ve had over these many, many years. It works.”

Sea walls are against state law, and those in favor of the system object to it being called one, while those opposed to it says that's what it is.

The DHEC board’s ultimate decision on the system will determine whether it can be used as a temporary emergency measure as sand bags are used now. New rules implemented last year require a long-term plan in place to combat erosion, such as renourishment. The City of Isle of Palms is working to secure the final pieces of funding for a $15 million beach renourishment project from 53rd Avenue east to Dewees Inlet.

The wave dissipation systems are in place in front of properties along Beachwood East, Seascape Villas and Ocean Club Villas in Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms as well as Harbor Island.

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