South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Supreme Court Will Take Another Look At Sams Spit
October 9th, 2019

By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection

The Aug. 9 email from Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Laura Cantral came as welcome news to Lowcountry conservationists. The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear CCL’s case to stop development on Captain Sams Spit for an unprecedented fifth time.

“Justices will consider plans to build a 2,380-foot steel wall on the eroding stretch of beach leading out to the spit. … Today’s decision indicates this issue remains a matter of significant public interest and that important legal principles are at stake,” read parts of the note from Cantral. “For more than a decade, we have worked with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project to defend The Spit. On its shore, diamondback terrapins nest, dolphins strand feed and endangered birds overwinter. Captain Sams is no place for houses, a road, steel walls, bulkheads or water and sewer lines. … We will again ask justices to protect it from development, once and for all.”

The Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled unanimously in favor of CCL’s case against Kiawah Partners’ efforts to construct a bulkhead and revetment stretching 2,783 feet along Captain Sams Spit on April 18, 2018. The decision marked the fourth time justices ruled on this issue and represents the third win for CCL, the plaintiff, and its legal representatives, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

SCELP is led by Executive Director and General Counsel Amy Armstrong. She and SCELP staff have fought the development for over a decade. She said SCELP has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend The Spit, which she insists is a public resource worth defending.

“The Spit is one of only three of its kind remaining on the South Carolina coast available to everyone. Every time KP tweaks its request for a revetment and files with [Judge Anderson’s] Administrative Law Court, we have to start from scratch. It takes [a lot of] time to produce the [typically] 25 pages necessary to prevent immediate action, usually on short notice, and get it referred to the Supreme Court,” Armstrong previously told The Island Connection.

The original, large-scale developers on Kiawah excluded The Spit from development in its 1978 master plan. The passage of time leaves only speculation to explain the policy. However, erosion has always played a part in studying The Spit, as illustrated in a time-lapse video narrated by Nancy Vinson, a former program director of CCL: youtube.com/ watch?v=nCUkvK-dkFo.

According to Steve Traynum, a scientist with Coastal Science & Engineering, The Spit accretes 1 to 10 feet of sand per year. He estimated The Spit lost at least 10 years of accretion because of Hurricane Matthew, painting a picture of The Spit as it was in 2007. Hurricane Irma made matters worse.

SCELP board member Greg VanDerwerker told The Island Connection the hope of CCL, SCELP and conservationists in general is that justices will perceive the steel wall/sheet pile alternative the same way they did the bulkhead when they voted against it in 2018. Previous testimony cited again in justification of the Supreme Court’s decision included the comment “… a vertical bulkhead alone, without anything to protect the toe against reflective wave energy, would cause even more exacerbated erosion.”

Although farther inland, unchecked erosion would find its way to the sheet pile VanDerwerker said. Complete details and context of the previous ruling are available by visiting SCSCcourts.org/opinions/ advSheets/no162018.pdf, starting on page 13.

Cantral’s remarks following the 2018 decision now seem prophetic: “… This is a huge win for our coast and you. The Spit is one of the last undeveloped beaches in South Carolina. The Supreme Court’s decision is a monumental step in the right direction … Our fight to protect this special place isn’t over yet.”

The Spit is a nesting ground for the threatened piping plover, diamondback terrapins and the endangered loggerhead turtle. It is also home to a pod of bottlenose dolphins that display the extremely rare behavior of “strand feeding” – herding bait fish onto the beach.

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