South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Judge blocks exclusive, gated community from putting tons of rocks on public beach
August 29th, 2019

By Sammy Fretwell, The State

Residents of an exclusive gated community who want to put tons of boulders on a public beach lost a court battle this week that could delay plans to protect their homes from rising seas and coastal erosion.

In a ruling Wednesday, an administrative law judge blocked Debordieu property owners from installing rock groins that they say will stabilize the eroding beach in Georgetown County.

The groins, which are rock and concrete walls, would extend several hundred feet across the beach and into the ocean to trap sand. It’s part of an effort to reduce beach erosion. The three groins would be developed in tandem with a privately funded beach renourishment project at Debordieu, a community south of Myrtle Beach near Georgetown.

Judge Ralph King Anderson III’s ruling is believed to be one of the first decisions based on a new state law that makes development easier in South Carolina. The law, approved by the Legislature last year, makes it easier to begin construction before administrative court challenges to development projects are finished. A case in North Myrtle Beach earlier this year was resolved before the law was tested.

Under the 2018 law, people fighting development projects in the administrative court must prove that the work will hurt the public interest and do “irreparable harm’’ if a project begins before the court case is resolved. Otherwise, work can begin 90 days after a legal challenge is filed.

This week’s ruling comes as battles simmer in South Carolina over how to deal with the effects of global warming and sea level rise. The state’s economy is heavily dependent on revenue from coastal tourism, and many oceanfront landowners are fighting to protect their investments from rising seas. Gov. Henry McMaster has formed a special flood commission that offered a menu of recommendations earlier this week.

In the Debordieu case, which challenges state permits for the work, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Belle W. Baruch Foundation said developing the groin project before the case is resolved would limit beach access and cause worse erosion down the coast on property the foundation owns. That property is full off nearly pristine beaches and wetlands, and includes the University of South Carolina’s acclaimed Baruch Marine Laboratory.

Anderson agreed to prevent development of the rock groins until the case is heard on its merits, saying he had not heard convincing evidence to launch the work. But his ruling was not a complete victory for the league and Hobcaw. Anderson said Debordieu can seek a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit it also needs for the work and begin initial efforts to launch the project, short of putting in the groins.

The full case won’t be argued in court until February, with a decision not expected for months after that.

“The protection of the public’s access to and use of the beach weighs in favor’’ of the league and Hobcaw, he wrote in a 15-page opinion.

Anderson’s ruling also said that if he allowed the rock groins to be installed before the case is concluded, Debordieu might not have the money to remove the structures at a later date if it lost the case. Removing the rocks could cost at least $750,000, but Debordieu has only $250,000 committed to removal, he said.

Amy Armstrong, a lawyer representing the league and Hobcaw, said the judge made the right decision in preventing the work to begin before the legal case is resolved.

“To us it seems like an obvious thing,’’ she said. “When you have heavy equipment up and down the beach putting millions of tons of rocks and structures in the ocean, it is not harmless. The judge seemed to take issue with that.’’

Tom Moon, an attorney and president of the Debordieu Colony Community Association, said the property owners were encouraged that they can continue preparations for the project, despite the ruling on the rock groins.

Many property owners at Debordieu say the groins and renourishment project are needed to protect them from rising sea levels. They say Debordieu has a major impact on the local economy and the project will help preserve that. The rock walls will help hold sand from the renourishment project in place longer, Moon said. Renourishment projects pump extra sand on beaches to make them wider, which protects oceanfront homes and buildings.

“We certainly need the groins,’’ Moon said. “We have suffered and will continue to suffer severe erosion on this beach.’’

A recent letter from a property owner to the Coastal Observer newspaper said “Erosion and sea level rise present a real and serious challenge for many locations in Georgetown County as well as the entire South Carolina coast. For low country sites with property close to the beach, periodic additions of sand through nourishment and groins are absolutely essential and represent responsible stewardship.’’

The issue of whether to establish groins at Debordieu has raged for parts of the past decade. Property owners have in the past received state permits to install groins, but never built them amid court challenges and questions about how to pay for the structures.

Debordieu property owners have fought other erosion battles through the years. They are also pushing the Legislature to let them rebuild a sagging seawall that juts far onto the beach, protecting dozens of homes that face flooding from the ocean as the earth’s climate changes and sea level rises.

If the property owners win the case to install groins and receive a federal permit, they could install the rock walls. Debordieu already has permits from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for the work.

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