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Beaches: Challenge to DeBordieu seawall starts over

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

An environmental group is back at square one in its effort to overturn a state permit to rebuild a seawall on the beachfront at DeBordieu. The Coastal Conservation League argues that the legislature violated the state Constitution when it allowed the project in a budget proviso.

The league asked the state Supreme Court to hear its challenge to the measure contained in the state budget in 2014 and 2015. The court declined, but attorneys for the league, the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, only recently learned of the decision made last summer, said Amy Armstrong, general counsel for the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which represents the league.

“I was kind of optimistic and hopeful that the Supreme Court would do something,” she said.

Instead, she filed the challenge in Circuit Court in Georgetown last week. “It’s probably going to get to the Supreme Court anyway,” Armstrong said.

The DeBordieu Beach Bulkhead Organization received a permit in 2015 from Coastal Resources to build a new seawall along 1,800 feet of an existing 4,500-foot-long seawall on the south end of DeBordieu. The new wall would be 2 feet seaward and 3 feet higher than the existing wall.

A 2013 study found the erosion rate in the area averaged 8 to 10 cubic yards of sand a year between 1980 and 2000. A beach nourishment project was completed in the spring of 2015 that covered the seawall. Only a couple of feet at the top of the wall are visible now, but in the past as much as 8 feet have been exposed at low tide.

In its permit application, the DeBordieu group said it didn’t plan to build the new seawall for “several years.” The goal is to have the permit in place for the next beach nourishment cycle, said Price Sloan, a member of the group.

Sloan said the suit is frustrating. “I still don’t understand why an organization that says it’s for coastal conservation would want a result where homes go into the ocean and cause damage, not only to those homes, but the beach,” he said.

Seawalls and other “hard structures” aren’t allowed under the state’s Coastal Zone Management Act, which was adopted in 1988. Existing structures cannot be rebuilt if destroyed.

In its suit, the Coastal Conservation League notes that the intent is to protect the state’s beaches from “development unwisely sited too close to the beach/dune system.”

In 2014, then-state Sen. Ray Cleary introduced a budget proviso to allow a special permit for reconstruction or repair of any existing structure over 4,000 feet in length on the beach without public access that had received a permit for a beach nourishment project. DeBordieu was the only one that met that criteria.

Cleary said at the time that he agreed with the policy against new structures, but said denying permission to repair existing structures amounted to a taking of private property, something he said the state would have to pay for.

The loss of the houses behind the existing seawall would also be a blow to the county’s tax base, Sloan said.

In its suit, the Coastal Conservation League says the proviso violates the provision in the Constitution that acts of the legislature have only one subject, which must be included in the title. The seawall proviso was part of the appropriations bill. Although it said the agency could charge for the permit, the league calls that “misleadingly useless,” in its suit.

The league also appealed the decision by Coastal Resources to issue the permit in the Administrative Law Court. That automatically stayed the permit. Action on the appeal was also stayed while the issue was before the Supreme Court.

In the suit filed in Circuit Court, the Coastal Conservation League argues that the agency was required to uphold its regulations against new seawalls in spite of the budget proviso. The group asks the court to strike down the budget proviso and enjoin Coastal Resources from issuing the permit.

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