South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

A line in a lot of sand; Seabrook owner disputes re-cutting Capt. Sam’s Inlet
February 4th, 2013

Capt. Sam’s Inlet is the focus of a dispute between property owners on Seabrook Island, one that is working its way through the court system. The argument is about whether or not to recut the inlet, changing the flow of sand down the beach.

SEABROOK ISLAND — The dunes and beach now stretch for hundreds of yards from the house Bill Sansom owns. A few blocks away from his property, even more dunes and beach separate Dave Bauhs’ home from the surf.

The two men are on opposite sides of a dispute over that expanse, a dispute that has become heated enough to divide neighbors across the usually low-key and relatively laid-back residential resort island.

Sansom says enough is enough; it’s not necessary yet to recut Capt. Sam’s Inlet to provide the beach more sand. Bauhs says it’s better to do it now than wait until the beach is lost.

Welcome to one of the quirkiest environmental battles under way on the Lowcountry coast: whether more sand is needed on one of its healthiest beaches, to protect homes that are no longer quite so beachfront.

This is the dispute that is holding up a controversial permit to recut Capt. Sam’s, a wildlife-rich inlet of tidal beach and shoals between Seabrook and Kiawah islands. It’s not a fight between property owners and environmental groups; it’s a fight among property owners. That makes for a cautionary tale across an eroding coast where beach renourishment is a recurring controversy.

Recutting the inlet would change the flow of sand that runs in currents down the beach, allowing more of that sand to settle on Seabrook.

Twice in the past, the inlet has been cut to do that; the work is partly why the beach is now so wide.

A third cut would be well more than what’s needed while the Seabrook beach is so healthy and still growing, Sansom said. Sansom argued in an appeal of a permit for the project that adding more sand would negatively impact his use and enjoyment of the property, essentially by moving the property even farther back from the surf.

“I don’t agree with (Sansom’s) philosophy that until houses are ready to fall into the ocean you shouldn’t do anything,” said Bauhs, the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association president. “You need to cut (the inlet) before you need it, because you need time for the sand to migrate (down the beach).”

Scooting across the tidal sands where the inlet will be reshaped is the piping plover, the nondescript shorebird that has ignited environmental fights up and down the Lowcountry coast.

So Sansom has brought environmentalists to the fight, in what Amy Armstrong of South Carolina Environmental Law Project called “an unusual case for us.”

The plover is so rare that fewer than 100 breeding pairs are known to exist. The migrating arctic bird is considered a threatened species in South Carolina, and the Kiawah and Seabrook beaches a critical habitat. Recutting Capt. Sam’s Inlet would disrupt the habitat, at least for a few years, by killing off worms the plovers eat.

Yes, worms. A pivotal argument in the permit appeal now in front of a S.C. Administrative Law judge is over worms.

But this fight isn’t really about the plover; it’s about sand. The cut would be the third for the inlet in 30 years.

Before the first cut, erosion took so much of the Seabrook beach that island interests placed a rock revetment to stop high surf from slamming into homes — rocks that still can be seen jutting up through the sand.

Periodic recuts have been called for in the island’s beach-management plan to keep that from happening again.

One more quirk: The worst of the erosion takes place on the island’s far end from Capt. Sam’s, where the North Edisto River has cut nearly all the beach away from in front of the Beach Club, the island’s sole resort and a focus of tourism revenue. The two previous projects’ permits allowed sand from the recut to be moved, primarily to renourish the Beach Club. This time, the permit requires the sand to stay put, to restore plover habitat as quickly as possible.

Bauhs said the association still plans to move some sand in a separate project, once the new inlet has established itself and moving the sand can be done safely.

“It’s like building the dam and then coming back later to get the approval to flood it,” Sansom said.

Don’t expect this one to be settled in a hurry. Administrative law court is a step in the appeals process required to get a case to the state Court of Appeals.

If Sansom wins in this court, the property owners would evaluate the case and decide whether to pursue it.

If the association wins, “Yeah, I sure would (take it to the Court of Appeals),” Sansom said. “I didn’t get into the game to get to the Super Bowl and not play.”

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