South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

South Carolina Supreme Court hears fourth Capt. Sams's Spit development challenge
September 27th, 2017

By Bo Petersen

S.C. Supreme Court justices expressed weariness Wednesday as attorneys tried — for the fourth time — to overturn or defend a lower court ruling on developing the fragile Kiawah Island beach known as Capt. Sam's Spit.

"We are very familiar with Sam's Spit," Chief Justice Donald Beatty said as he opened the hearing in Columbia.

"Do we send it back (to the Administrative Law Court) for a third hearing, God forbid?" said Justice Kaye Hearn.

The legal wrestling over Capt. Sam's has carried on for nearly a decade and is now in a tangle of various court fights over S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control permits to develop the island plot. Robert Bockman, a law faculty member at the University of South Carolina, said it is unprecedented for the court to hear the same case four times.

The spit where the Kiawah River empties into the Atlantic Ocean has been a sought-after natural destination for years. Its flocks of shorebirds and dolphin feeding along its banks have drawn a growing number of onlookers since the high-profile dispute began.

Volunteers from the Kiawah Island Community Association now patrol the beach on weekends to keep those visitors from being disruptive.

This case involves a half-mile of bulkhead and revetment wall that Kiawah Development Partners wants to build on the narrow neck of the spit along the eroding river bank to protect a road to its proposed development on the high ground beyond.

An Administrative Law Court judge earlier ruled in favor of permitting the bulkhead — but not the revetment, which S.C. Environmental Law Project attorney Amy Armstrong argued would worsen erosion, not stem it. The developers' attorney, Trenholm Walker, argued the bulkhead would be DHEC-certified to work as intended.

A revetment is a sloped, reinforced surface usually constructed of rock or a similar material. A bulkhead is a vertical wall, usually made of wood.

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

The company has announced plans to build 50 homes on high ground on the spit. Company 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.

Groups such as the Coastal Conservation League, which is opposing the permits, say the spit is too fragile and too valuable as a natural resource to be built on. Like other inlet areas, Capt. Sam’s is continually reshaped by waves and wind. Currently, it is eroding along the riverbank where the road is planned, while the beach is gaining sand.

The judges usually rule on cases in three to six months, Armstrong said. The apparent weariness "is, I think, to be expected. Anyone would think it's time to be done with this case," she said.

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