South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Senators side with gated Debordieu community in debate over public beach
April 29th, 2014

COLUMBIA, SC — The S.C. Senate, in a departure from 26 years of coastal law, sided Tuesday with a handful of oceanfront landowners who want to protect resort homes from rising seas by rebuilding a seawall in their gated community north of Georgetown.

But a new seawall could encroach as much as two feet farther onto the shore than an existing structure at Debordieu Beach — and the Senate’s vote to allow the seawall drew sharp criticism.

Under pressure to let Debordieu residents rebuild the aging seawall, the Senate agreed on a bill that gives property owners three years to fix the 4000-foot bulkhead. Engineers say the wall might need to be built farther out on the beach to make construction possible.

The Senate’s action is a compromise to a bill granting a blanket exemption for Debordieu from the state’s 1988 ban on new seawalls. The Legislature enacted the 1988 prohibition because seawalls worsen erosion of the public beach, even as they protect private property.

“I think this is terrible,’’ said attorney Amy Armstrong, whose non-profit S.C. Environmental Law Project has been involved in numerous legal disputes against seaside development. “This three-year thing doesn’t give me any comfort. In three years they’ll just come back and amend the law again. That is essentially meaningless.’’

The House still needs to approve the bill and Gov. Nikki Haley would have to give her endorsement for it to become law.

Armstrong said if the Senate bill becomes law, it could open the state for legal action.

In allowing a new seawall to extend two more feet onto the shore at Debordieu, the state would allow public beach to be taken for private use, she said. A change in the law also could open the state for other requests for exemptions from the seawall ban, she said.

Senators voted without dissent for the bill, pushed by Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, after another environmental group agreed to the compromise. The Conservation Voters of South Carolina said the compromise was realistic given momentum to lift the seawall ban for Debordieu. Cleary is generally viewed as a moderate and has enjoyed popularity with the Conservation Voters.

Cleary said he doesn’t see any precedent being set because state law goes easier on Folly Beach, near Charleston, than other seaside communities.

“Our community had taken a position against any exemption, but what we got was a limited exemption,’’ Conservation Voters director Ann Timberlake said. “We are supporting it as a compromise. It is what we could get.’’

The Debordieu seawall has existed for more than 30 years. Residents of the upscale gated community south of Pawleys Island say the beach was once wide, but has eroded to the point that some homes shake when waves crash against the wooden seawall. They say they only want to fix the wall while trying to raise money for a beach-widening project.

Tuesday’s vote was taken as coastal managers throughout the Carolinas met in Charlotte this week to discuss how they’ll deal with climate change, including rising sea levels that increasingly threaten coastal property. Sea-level rise in South Carolina drew attention last fall, when U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge to view first-hand the impacts of climate change on barrier islands.

Armstrong said the Senate’s action is in direct conflict with the findings of state study committees in recent years, which have called for tough stances against seawalls. The Debordieu exemption is part of a larger bill that allows experimental projects to temporarily protect property from the ocean, as well as a ban on moving a state building restriction line seaward.

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