South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Seawalls 'destroy' the beach, experts say. So how did one in Sea Pines get approved?
June 15th, 2018

By Alex Kinkaid, The Island Packet

The pounding waves and heavy downpour from Tropical Storm Irma stripped eight feet of sand from the backyard of Bert Ellis' Sea Pines home in September 2017, exposing a concrete wall — his pool foundation.

A year earlier, Hurricane Matthew wiped out the berm and vegetation around the back of his oceanfront home and those of his neighbors. The town pushed up sand in the decimated area, Ellis said, but it was no match for Irma’s flooding.

Fearing another storm, Ellis and four neighbors have decided something needs to be done to better protect their homes. The group recently ponied up $750,000 to construct a controversial 450-foot long, buried metal seawall.

It's causing outrage for some Sea Pines residents, who say a seawall should have never been allowed by the town of Hilton Head Island because of the known consequences for neighboring homes.

And the shoreline itself could be harmed in the long term, impacting everyone who loves the beach, say environmentalists.

“This is an issue that is way bigger than five properties on Hilton Head," said Rob Young, a coastal geology professor at North Carolina's Western Carolina University who directs a program that studies developed shorelines.

Seawalls are known to cause worsened erosion just outside of the wall’s limits, and the state’s Beachfront Management Act, along with the town’s Beach Management Plan, aim to restrict the structures because they have not been proven to be effective.

“The science is clear. Seawalls on eroding shorelines destroy the beach,” Young said. “This structure will immediately cause problems for neighboring properties (in the event of a storm).”

Scott Liggett, Hilton Head's director of public projects and facilities and chief engineer, said if another storm hits the island, exposing the buried wall, he expects more erosion to adjacent properties, and for the beach to “perform worse with the seawall in place than had it not been there.”

Rikki Parker, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, said climate change and rising sea level will likely cause more frequent and severe storms, increasing the odds of the wall being exposed.

Liggett said, however, the structure will be "inactive" on a day-to-day basis, because it will be buried and will not be in direct contact with water.

"The intent that we have is to keep it buried," Liggett said. "The concern that I have comes from the acute impacts that may be associated with a passing storm event that exposes the wall."

If and when that storm comes, Liggett anticipates being asked just how much beach damage was directly caused by the wall.

He’s also preparing to hear from angry residents, who may demand that those who built the wall be held responsible for causing more damage to the beach — Hilton Head’s best public amenity, which draws millions of tourists to the island each year.

Who is responsible?

Karen Wells lives on South Beach Lane, just two houses and an empty lot away from the seawall.

In the last two storms, she said her home didn’t have any flood damage. But she doubts that will be the case in the next storm, because the wall may push water toward her property. She’s also worried the development may prompt others to build their own seawalls — making what she sees as a problem more widespread.

According to an article in Science magazine nearly 14 percent of United States coastlines are armored with structures like seawalls, and that number is expected to rise by 2100.

“My concern is both for the community properties and my home,” Wells said. “The big question is, if damage occurs from redirected stormwater, who is responsible? … The town needs to develop a comprehensive policy and set of codes to address the building of private seawalls, and we need that sooner rather than later.”

The Sea Pines wall is 20 feet high, but only about a foot and a half will be above ground, Ellis said. The exposed top of the wall will be capped with concrete and covered with sand. Dune fencing will be installed in front of it. The wall will curve in along the beach paths, and will redirect stormwater away from it.

Michael Wolfe, who lives about a quarter of a mile away from the seawall, said although his home won't be damaged by any redirected stormwater, he is concerned that the wall will divert water down the beach paths, causing damage to other homes.

"Seawalls don't work, from what I've read and gathered," he said.

"It seems like a desperate move on the part of the owners (who are building the wall). If I lived next door, I'd be furious with the town and ARB that allowed this," he said, referring to the Sea Pines architectural review board that approved the wall.

Liggett said the town’s response to any beach damage caused directly by the wall, and whether the town would cover the exposed seawall with sand, would be a policy decision Town Council must make.

Mayor David Bennett said if a major storm comes, and the seawall causes more damage to the beach, he’d turn to Liggett.

“I understand the concern, and I think right now we’re in a monitoring situation,” Bennett said. “I’ve asked (Liggett) if this is something of substantial concern … but I didn’t get the sense from him that it was. I think before we’d make an act on policy, I’d be looking to him for guidance.”

When asked if town code may need to be revised to prevent similar, private erosion control structures, Bennett said “it’s possible.”

“There are a number of seawalls within our beach system that we manage, and I think we do a really really good job at it,” Bennett said. “And we will continue to do that.”

Tom Lennox, the Town Council representative for Sea Pines, said the town should be consistent in what it's done before in terms of managing the beach after storms.

When asked if the town should revise code to prevent seawalls, Lennox said "it's worth talking about" but noted it's important not to infringe on the rights of private property owners.

According to Anne Cyran, a senior planer for the town, after Matthew and Irma, the town pushed up sand to form an "emergency berm" on the active beach in the area where the seawall is being constructed.

How was the Sea Pines seawall approved?

Although the state and the town have policies restricting the use of seawalls and other “hard erosion control devices,” this seawall, which is on private property, did not require state approval.

About six months ago, Ellis said he consulted the S.C. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, a division of the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, to find out what could be done to better protect his property.

But it turned out the seawall didn’t require a state permit, Ellis said.

That’s because the wall would be landward of the state’s jurisdictional lines, which are meant to “guide development away from vulnerable beachfront shorelines,” according to DHEC.

The state's Beachfront Management Act bans seawalls seaward of the jurisdictional lines, according to Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. She said if jurisdictional lines move, a seawall previously built would not become illegal.

According to DHEC, last month Governor Henry McMaster signed the Beachfront Management Reform Act, which allows a homeowner to abide by the 2012 jurisdictional lines or adopt those proposed in 2017. The lines do not always move landward, and so this change allows homeowners to follow the most seaward of the two sets of lines.

According to the act, new jurisdictional lines won't be established until 2024.

The Sea Pines seawall is about two feet away from the 2012 landward line, Ellis said. That meant only the town and the Sea Pines architectural review board needed to allow the structure.

The wall was outside of the town’s jurisdiction, and only required natural resource permits for the construction work.

Armstrong said she has seen private property owners construct their own seawall before, when homeowners on Daufuskie Island built one in 2002 after a judge ruled to allow it in an area regulated by the Beachfront Management Act.

Michael Corley, a staff attorney for SCELP, said building seawalls landward of the lines, however, is "a legal and regulatory gray area."

"Seawalls falling in this unregulated gap need to be addressed," he said. "Seawalls landward of the jurisdictional lines have the same problems of those seaward of the lines. There's a reason these structures are banned."

Are seawalls new to the island?

Hilton Head has never seen anything quite like the Sea Pines seawall before, Liggett said.

“I don’t know of a modern day, private individual that has undertaken something like this,” he said. “(But) I’m not sure I have concern that this will be the first step in a proliferation of these sorts of structures elsewhere.”

The story of how Hilton Head has dealt with erosion problems can roughly be divided into two parts: Before 1983 — the year Hilton Head became an incorporated town — and after.

The preferred method of erosion control during the development of the island in the 1960s and 1970s was armoring, or using hard erosion control structures, according to Cyran. These were mostly installed by private communities, according to the Beach Management Plan.

That preferred method of erosion control shifted in the late 1980s — after the town had been incorporated — when the state enacted the Beachfront Management Act, which concluded that armoring shorelines was not effective.

Since then, the town has preferred “soft” forms of erosion control, such as renourishment and dune restoration, according to the town’s Beach Management Plan.

Renourishment involves placing new sand on the beach. The town has spent around $80 million on beach renourishment since 1990, Liggett said. Those projects are funded through the Beach Preservation Fee, a form of accommodations tax, which provides about $6 million each year.

Some hard structures — mostly constructed before the town’s incorporation — remain on the island. They are now buried, and don’t seem to cause problems for the beach, Liggett said.

Does the town need to prevent future seawalls?

The town has two overlay districts that aim to limit “seaward migration of development,” according to the town’s 2017 Beach Management Plan.

Those include the Coastal Protection Overlay District and the Transition Area Overlay District — but the Sea Pines seawall was landward of both.

Parker said if the town wants to take a stand against seawalls, it could do so by amending where those districts end. If the Coastal Protection Overlay district, for example, were to extend to the last hard structure on a person’s property, future seawalls could not be constructed.

The town could also create a policy banning seawalls, she said.

Armstrong, of SCELP, said she is not aware of any South Carolina municipalities that have banned seawalls.

If homeowners are concerned about protecting their properties despite the town’s renourishment efforts, retreat — or physically moving homes away from the ocean — is another option, Parker said.

With construction on the Sea Pines seawall wrapping up, and expected completion in mid-July, the wall will soon be buried. Dune fencing will be installed in front of the wall to help rebuild the dunes that the island’s most recent storms washed away, as it has been across the island.

"When it's all said and done, everyone will say this was a lot of noise about nothing," Ellis said.

It’s possible that discussion of the wall will fizzle and won’t come up until the next storm.

But some are still wary of the damage it may cause to the shoreline during that storm.

“The problem comes when it’s doing its job — the waves will wash away sand and expose the wall,” said Young. “It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’”

Erosion control on Hilton Head

The island already has several structures that, like seawalls, attempt to protect what's behind them.

▪ Seven groins in the South Beach area of Sea Pines installed in the late 1960s and 1970s by the Sea Pines Company

▪ 10,000 feet of stone and concrete revetment along North Forest Beach installed in the 1960s

▪ Sloping concrete revetment with a seawall by the Marriott Hotel (installation date is unknown)

▪ Folly terminal groin built by the town as part of the 1997 beach renourishment project

▪ Port Royal Plantation groin field, which has 17 groins and two sections of rock revetments installed between 1969 and 1974 (two of the groins were built around 1960)

▪ Six small rock breakwaters at Fish Haul/Mitchelville Beach installed in 2006 as part of a town renourishment project

▪ A 700-foot rubble mound terminal groin at the northeastern end of the Port Royal Sound installed by the town in 2012

▪ 6,300 feet of revetment at Dolphin Head installed in the 1970s

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