South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

South Carolina regulators allow temporary sea walls to remain on Isle of Palms beaches
March 9th, 2017

By Bo Petersen

In a turnabout move, a state regulatory board has approved removable sea walls guarding millions of dollars worth of beachfront property at the Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms, at least for the time being.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board rejected a staff recommendation not to allow the walls, three months after putting the issue on hold while public comments were reviewed and a public hearing could take place. The walls will be allowed while more study takes place, said DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity.

For more than three years, the walls have helped keep high seas from sweeping into buildings, carports, pools and grounds at a series of beachfront condominiums and homes in the Wild Dunes resort on the east end of Isle of Palms. They also were installed in front of a set of homes on St. Helena Sound near Beaufort.

Environmental groups have opposed the walls, saying they exacerbate erosion and impede the nesting of threatened and endangered sea turtle species. The Sierra Club and S.C. Wildlife Federation have filed a notice of intent to sue the agency in federal court.

They will challenge the DHEC decision, said attorney Amy Armstrong, of the S.C. Environmental Law Project. An attorney for the developers of the walls, called Wave Dissipation Devices, declined to comment.

The walls 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. The devices do not prevent erosion but keep it in check.

The first of them was placed in 2013. Sections have been removed and reset, added to or taken away. They technically are not legal; state law prohibits sea walls in most cases. But state legislative action mandated they be allowed as a study.

The walls are designed to be taken down between storms and extreme high-tide events but remained in place during the study by engineers. Staff said the walls didn't sufficiently shore up the beach, exacerbated erosion in spots and caused erosive scouring.

VIDEONeighbors show councilman bike path concerns Play Mute Current Time 0:14 / Duration Time 2:01 Loaded: 0%Progress: 0% Fullscreen DHEC described the devices as an alternative to sandbags, which are the standard beachfront protection, allowed temporarily under emergency orders.

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 repermitting.

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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