South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Environmental groups oppose beach renourishment plan for Georgetown County’s DeBordieu Island
February 28th, 2019

By Kaitlin Stansell

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Homeowners are ready to front the bill to save their beach front properties on DeBordieu Island in Georgetown County.

The shoreline has gone through several beach renourishment projects before, but people who live on the exclusive barrier island now want to build three groins to keep the sand they’ve replaced in front of their houses.

However, environmental groups argue it’s a short-term fix for a more challenging, long-term problem.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Office of Ocean Coastal Resource Management have issued permits for DeBordieu Colony Community Association to place up to 650,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach and construct three groins to preserve that sand.

Groins are similar to jettys. They are hard structures built perpendicular to the shoreline to collect and keep sand in certain locations.

“Groins will keep sand there longer, so it will protect private property. It will protect the ecosystem much more than just placing sand there that’s going to wash away every few years. To not take into account the changes that have taken place in the last thirty years in coastal management, it just doesn’t make sense,” Blanche Brown, the general manager of DeBordieu Colony, said. “We have our 30-year plan in place. We have the funding. We expected to have a lengthy appeal process, and we hope to be able to get through that process and start construction in 2021.”

The beach front property on DeBordieu Island is prime real estate, and both sides of this debate want to save the shoreline. Cliffs of sand have been chiseled into the beach by recent king tides, and officials say erosion is a recurring issue.

However, officials with the Coastal Conservation League say there is a better way to address this problem.

“They [groins] are intended to trap sand that is moving north to south and, so they do capture sand north of those structures, but they starve the sand below those structures. Therein lies where our concern is, the impact on the National Estuarine Research Reserve and the North Inlet, which is an awesome pristine estuary in our area.” Erin Pate, the North Coast Office Director for CCL, said. “We certainly empathize greatly with those beach front property owners, and it is a challenge. There will always be a tension between the protection of natural resources and development.”

DeBordieu Island is exclusive to its residents, guests and club members. However, environmental groups say the changes proposed for sand within its property lines will impact the North Inlet and the rest of the beach that lies south of where the groins will be built.

“Barrier islands are important to protect upland areas. When they are developed, it puts not only properties on the barrier island at risk because they want to inundate, they want to accrete, and they erode,” Pate said. “They do this naturally, when you put houses there, that interferes with nature’s way of handling the oceans.”

This isn’t the first time DeBordieu homeowners have tried to save their sand with this strategy. In 2011, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project opposed a similar permit awarded to the DeBordieu Colony Community Association.

According to SCELP, DeBordieu Colony agreed to withdraw its request for the three groins and only renourish the beach with an offshore source of sand.

Environmental groups say the area that would feel the most detrimental effects of any constructed groins is the North Inlet/Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR).

This NERR is one of the few pristine estuaries left in the United States, and one of only 28 NERRs in the country. The majority of the waters of North Inlet are classified as Outstanding Resource Waters – the highest water classification in the state. Scientists have been conducting long-term ecological studies at the NERR for decades because it is a test control site for the normal functions of estuaries, according to the SCELP.

“It’s a very, highly erosional beach,” Brown said. “I don’t view it as a short-term fix. As a matter of fact, it’s a much longer plan for preserving the beach.”

Over the years, homeowners have spent millions on putting sand back on the beach, and officials say the economic aspect of the groins is beneficial. They believe the groins will preserve the sand they’ve replaced for a longer period of time.

“They privately fund beach renourishment and have been doing so since the 1990s. They’ve spent approximately $20 million to renourish the beach,” Brown said. “It’s one of the community’s primary assets and why people love living here.”

Pate says the Coastal Conservation League is waiting to hear back from DHEC about the group’s environmental concerns. Officials hope this can be resolved without legal action.

The DHEC permit includes strict monitoring requirements and objective survey data which will be used to determine when additional nourishment is required, according to a press release from the DeBordieu Colony Community Association.

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