South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

With seas rising, coastal resort abandons plan for controversial seawall
July 10th, 2018

By Sammy Fretwell

COLUMBIA, SC Oceanfront landowners in a gated community near Georgetown have abandoned their plans to rebuild a seawall that would have protected millions of dollars worth of beach houses but made a public seashore more likely to wash away.

A group of Debordieu Beach property owners settled their case with environmentalists last month, ending a court dispute that had dragged on since 2015. The property owners received special permission from the Legislature and S.C. regulators three years ago to rebuild the wall, but a lawsuit challenging the wall tied up the issue in court.

The settlement is significant because it protects a public beach during a time of rising sea levels, but also because it maintains the state’s 30-year-old ban on new seawalls, according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which had challenged the seawall.

When hit by the surf, seawalls worsen erosion on beaches.

“Now more than ever, as our coast is seeing the effects of sea-level rise, severe erosion and frequent major storm events, the (seawall) prohibition is an important tool for protecting the public’s beach,’’ said Amy Armstrong, who heads the Environmental Law Project.

Mary Shahid, an attorney for the landowners, said they abandoned efforts to rebuild the wall because legal disputes had caused so many delays. Until the owners can figure out a new plan, their homes "are in jeopardy'' from the ocean's waves, she said.

"They felt like they needed to hit the pause button and consider whether there are other alternatives,'' Shahid said. "The reason they never (built) was because of legal challenges.''

Since 2015, the property owners have renourished the beach with sand to make it wider. However, the beach has started to erode since that work was done. Landowners now are seeking to install oceanfront groins, long rock or concrete walls that extend into the ocean to trap sand. Conservationists say those walls also will make erosion worse.

At one point, waves were crashing against the aging wooden seawall and washing over it. The 1,800-foot long seawall is at the extreme south end of Debordieu, just above the University of South Carolina's Baruch Marine Laboratory in Georgetown County.

Construction of seawalls is a growing issue on the S.C. coast as climate changes and sea levels rise. Many people are looking for ways to build seawalls, despite the 30-year ban, to protect their investments. The Legislature eased some restrictions this past year on seaside development as property owners complained.

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