South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Beaufort Co. community says homes on eroded beach need to be gone. Who will pay?
September 24th, 2018

By Stephene Fastenau

A northern Beaufort County community is asking the state for help in ridding itself of storm-damaged beachfront homes it says are a safety and environmental hazard.

The Harbor Island Owners Association, via the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project, told the state in a letter Friday that seven homes in the gated community should now be considered on public waters because the water rises beyond the homes at high tide. The state has the authority to seek a court order to have the homes removed, with the cost ultimately falling on the homeowners, the property owners group says.

Amy Armstrong, executive director of the Environmental Law Project, said she’s not aware of similar cases involving beachfront homes under a 2007 state law related to nuisance property on the water but that the issue would become more prevalent amid more extreme weather and rising sea level.

In a letter to the S.C. attorney general’s office, Armstrong said the property owners association is prepared to take legal action if the state doesn’t act.

“For Harbor Island Owners Association and from a legal standpoint, it does need to be decided,” she said. “This isn’t the first or last time we’re going to see this kind of thing happen.”

Attorney general’s office spokesman Robert Kittle said Monday the office had received the letter and would review it.

In her letter, Armstrong attached a note from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to county officials expressing safety concerns.

“We are concerned that some of these homes may collapse in the near future,” Elizabeth von Kolnitz, head of DHEC’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, wrote county attorney Tom Keaveny in June. “The resulting debris could become a significant safety hazard and an obvious environmental problem.”

Some of the beachfront homeowners on Harbor Island have battled erosion for years, deploying hundreds of sandbags amid storms and especially high “king” tides in 2015 and some purchasing experimental barriers known as wave dissipation systems in an attempt to slow the ocean’s onslaught and effects of erosion.

A federal judge last year ordered the systems removed after environmental groups argued the structures negatively affected sea turtle nesting.

Hurricane Matthew heavily damaged some of the homes in 2016. Some of the owners are still trying to recoup insurance money they believe is still owed in relation to the storm.

Patricia Gardner’s investment property on Harbor Drive North is one of the homes the community association is trying to have removed. She said Monday that wind and water from Matthew heavily damaged her home and she’s in a legal dispute to recover what she feels is the correct amount of insurance money owed to cover her loss.

Gardner has listed her home on the real estate website Zillow for $122,000 and said she has interest from prospective buyers who could tear the house down and rebuild farther back on the lot, move the house back on the same lot or move the house to firmer ground somewhere else.

“I don’t have the deep pockets to do that, but maybe somebody who buys it does,” she said.

The money from the sale would allow Gardner to pay off her mortgage, she said. The money she did receive from insurance and federal aid went to pay down the loan, she said.

Gardner’s neighbor tore his house down. Others moved their homes to other lots. At least one is trying to restore the property.

Some of the homes have heating and air systems hanging from the building and siding falling apart, Harbor Island Owners Association president Karl Mack said. Had Hurricane Florence hit Beaufort County, the homes and their contents would scattered throughout St. Helena Sound, he said.

The structures are a safety and environmental hazard in addition to looking bad, he said. Mack said he sympathizes with the affected property owners but that association rules related to repairs have to be enforced.

“If they can be rehabbed and repaired, wonderful,” Mack said. “If they have to come down, they have to come down. What can’t happen is they can’t be allowed to stay in the condition they are in.”

Source (external link)