South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

DeBordieu seawall plans withdrawn
July 18th, 2018

By Clayton Stairs

Twenty-four homeowners in DeBordieu Colony who want to build a new seawall to keep the ocean from reaching their homes say they will find another way to move forward with those plans.

After fighting a three-year legal battle with local environmental groups, the homeowners withdrew their permit application.

Meanwhile, the Coastal Conservation League, represented by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, is claiming victory in the case and says it has opposed the application because seawalls worsen beach erosion and degrade beaches. The group said the Beachfront Management Act has outlawed building new seawalls since 1988 and other options should be explored to solve the issue.

SCELP’s Executive Director and Chief Counsel Amy Armstrong described the case’s dismissal as a significant victory.

“The order upholds the integrity of the Beachfront Management Act and its prohibition on new seawalls,” Armstrong said. “Now more than ever, as our coast is seeing the effects of sea level rise, severe erosion and frequent major storm events, the prohibition is an important tool for protecting the public’s beach.”

She said following an unsuccessful attempt to amend the law, a group of beachfront property owners in the private, gated DeBordieu Colony community retained a lobbyist to secure a special exemption from the prohibition through a budget proviso.

Relying solely on the language of a "constitutionally suspect budget proviso," Armstrong said, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a permit authorizing the construction of a new 1,800-foot timber seawall that encroached 2 feet seaward of and 3 feet higher than an existing wall, resulting in a total loss of 3,600 square feet of public trust beach.

The CCL, represented by SCELP, challenged both the DHEC permit in the Administrative Law Court, as well as the constitutionality of the budget proviso in circuit court, Armstrong said. In August 2017, Administrative Law Judge Deb Durden decided that the Conservation League did not have standing to challenge the permit.

SCELP and the Conservation League appealed that case to the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Ultimately, the DeBordieu property owners agreed to withdraw the permit, and DHEC agreed to cancel it. The circuit court entered an order on June 19 disposing the case, Armstrong said.

Price Sloan, one of the DeBordieu homeowners involved with the case, said he and the other homeowners will do whatever it takes to rebuild the seawall. He said they decided to withdraw the application because of legal fees and delays.

"We've got to get that wall built in the next couple years," Sloan said, adding that it is just a matter of time before the houses are in the ocean. "Not rebuilding the seawall puts at risk not only individual investments but it will also affect Georgetown County's tax base. We will continue to pursue protecting our property through all available means."

Sloan said that the homeowners are confident that seawalls do not cause erosion and when coupled with renourishment, they are a viable way to save their houses. He said the residents of DeBordieu Colony have renourished the beach there several times at their own expense, which helps sea turtles that nest there and migrating birds that visit.

"We are trying to be good stewards of the environment," Sloan said. "It is very frustrating that because we have a large investment in property, somehow we aren’t doing the right thing for the environment. Nothing could be farther form truth"

Armstrong said the only option for the homeowners at this point is to repair the seawall in its existing footprint, unless they choose to go through the permitting process again.

Erin Pate, North Coast director for the CCL, said that the Beachfront Management Act outlawed creating new seawalls because they do more harm than good.

"The CCL has long believed that seawalls and hard structures are short-term band-aids to address mother nature and the impacts of our changing climate," Pate said. "We are certainly open to working with the community to explore ways to preserve the beaches for future generations. I feel for these property owners, it is a real dilemma."

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