South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Hilton Head homeowners built sea wall before DHEC could stop them
September 6th, 2018

By Chloe Johnson

The company building a sea wall on Hilton Head Island has been ordered to stop work and apply for building permits, but the construction is already essentially done.

The stop work order, dated Aug. 29, could set off public hearings on the wall, which some nearby owners are concerned will affect their properties in the event of a major storm.

Attempts to protect a beachfront property with a hard structure like a sea wall will over time exacerbate erosion on the seaward side.

In the case of the Hilton Head wall, built in front of five beachfront homes on Piping Plover Road, that would mean the deterioration of the public side of the beach because the landward side is private property.

It was built in a regulatory gray zone, out of reach for the town of Hilton Head and landward of the lines that the Department of Health and Environmental Control uses to regulate beachfront building.

It’s estimated that as many as 292 other homes on Hilton Head might be able to take advantage of the same jurisdictional gap, though town officials dispute that number.

Bert Ellis, one of the homeowners who pooled their money to construct the wall, said work is essentially done — the 18-foot-deep structure, capped with cement, is now covered with sand. Landscaping work has been done on the landward side.

“Even some of the people who absolutely have raised hell about it have walked by and said, ‘This just looks beautiful,’ ” Ellis said. “You would have to be a real cynic to be mad about this.”

The structure is the first new sea wall in South Carolina in 30 years, excepting some walls that have been installed on Folly Beach, which is exempted from certain state regulations.

Homeowners sought the wall after their section of the south end of Hilton Head Island was battered by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the remnants of Hurricane Irma in 2017, both of which swept so much sand off the beach that the sides of in-ground pools were left exposed.

But the project was challenged by the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which sent a letter to DHEC on Aug. 10 asserting that the builders needed two different kinds of construction permits, which had not been granted by the state.

Rikki Parker of the League said she’s pleased that the public could get a formal opportunity to voice their concerns to the state.

Michael Corley of the Environmental Law Project said he’s optimistic that at least one of the permits will be denied by the state.

“Our primary objective is to close the loophole or erase the gray area,” Corley said.

If that happens, it’s not necessarily clear that the wall would be ripped out of the ground, but there is one recent precedent: a “wave dissipation system” on Isle of Palms, an experimental, partly porous sea wall, was ordered removed by a judge last year.

Even though it’s enshrined in state policy that hard structures should not be used to protect the beach, property owners with different ideas are often looking for ways to circumvent regulations.

Outcry from coastal homeowners in December effectively scuttled a new plan for the jurisdictional lines DHEC uses to restrict beachfront building. If those lines had been implemented, the Hilton Head wall would have been clearly prohibited.

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