South Carolina

Where’s the beach? McMaster vetoes plan to help wealthy property owners build seawall

See what seawalls, groins, and breakwaters do to protect and damage shorelines

Video animation shows what products designed to protect coastal communities from erosion can do to the coastline - both good and bad.
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Video animation shows what products designed to protect coastal communities from erosion can do to the coastline - both good and bad.

Gov. Henry McMaster has stopped a last minute plan to let wealthy oceanfront property owners rebuild a seawall on an eroding public beach in Georgetown County.

On Wednesday, McMaster vetoed a bill that would have exempted several dozen homes at Debordieu Beach from the state’s ban on seawalls. His veto stops a bill that passed the Legislature as lawmakers prepared to wrap up work for the year.

The bill was focused on another issue, but was amended to accommodate the Debordieu property owners in their quest to reconstruct a battered seawall. Rep. Davy Hiott, a Pickens Republican who chairs the House agriculture committee, pushed for the amendment.

In his veto message to House Speaker Jay Lucas, McMaster said it was wrong for the Legislature to ‘”hastily enact” a special exception to South Carolina’s beachfront management law. The law was adopted more than 30 years ago and includes a ban on construction of new seawalls.

“The provision in question was a late hour amendment added to a bill that was debated and considered through the normal Legislative process,’’ McMaster wrote. “The better course is for the General Assembly — in consultation with homeowners, civic leaders and environmental experts — to debate and decide legitimate policy issues involving our unique shoreline .... through open public processes.’’

The concern over seawalls is simple: Waves bouncing off of seawalls speed up erosion on public beaches, giving less beach for the public to walk on. In some cases, like at Debordieu, seawalls actually extend onto the public beach, blocking people from walking along the seashore. Through the years, waves have routinely crashed against the Debordieu seawall.

“When we allow structures to be built close to the ocean, they threaten the existence of the public beach itself,” said environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong, who said the Republican governor made the right decision.

McMaster’s veto follows years of efforts by property owners at Debordieu to protect a handful of oceanfront homes on the gated community’s southern shoreline. They say they need help because the ocean threatens their homes.

Jim Christian, a Debordieu resident who does not live behind the seawall but supports the property owners, said McMaster shouldn’t have vetoed the bill. The property owners wanted to rebuild a seawall that is aging and in danger of failing.

“I look forward to hearing what the governor has to say when a house floats out into the water and down into North Inlet,’’ said Christian, a former president of the Debordieu Colony Community Association.

Hiott said Wednesday night that no one approached him about amending the bill to help the Debordieu property owners. The Legislature had approved a similar but temporary measure as part of the state budget in recent years, he said. All he was doing was trying to make the exemption permanent, he said. Hiott said he’s glad to help Debordieu because oceanfront homes provide tax revenue for Georgetown County and rebuilding a seawall only protects that.

“They are wanting to build their seawall back right where it was,’’ Hiott said. “It’s at their own expense and wasn’t costing the state a dime. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve never had a problem with it.’’

In the past decade, the property owners have made other attempts to rebuild their storm battered seawall, as well as extend groins into the ocean that they believe will slow major beach erosion in front of their homes. The property owners also have widened the beach through renourishment projects, but erosion rates are so high that the sand disappears in a matter of years.

After Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma twice left their beachfront homes on the edge of the ocean, these five Sea Pines homeowners banded together to build a seawall in front of their houses.

Several dozen property owners have homes behind the seawall in a coastal community with more than 1,200 developed home sites.

Those who have owned property behind the seawall through the years include a retired Coca Cola executive from Atlanta; a Columbia camera store chain owner; and a one-time state Ports Authority chairman. Some property owners had contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for state office, The State reported five years ago.

Located south of Myrtle Beach, Debordieu is an exclusive, gated community with a thriving summer tourism business. The beach at Debordieu is public.

The Debordieu saga is sad for individual property owners, but it is a classic example of unwise coastal development practices, said Armstrong, an attorney with the non-profit South Carolina Environmental Law Project. The property owners built the seawall on an eroding beach before the state adopted a seawall ban in 1988.

Now, Armstrong said, the Debordieu property owners want a bailout from the government. Armstrong noted that sea levels are rising as a result of climate change, making homes built too close to the ocean even more vulnerable to damage.

“The policy decisions that the state makes need to account for the fact that there are rising sea levels, and we are experiencing erosion,’’ she said. “We need to stop giving the OK to put people in harm’s way. By allowing another seawall, we are saying you are safe to have a house here. Everybody knows it’s not safe.’’

The property owners received approval several years ago from the state environmental agency to rebuild the seawall, raising questions about whether that would set a precedent to allow more seawall construction. But they dropped their bid to replace the seawall in front of their homes after Armstrong’s group sued.

The effects of the rising sea on property values has been noticeable at times. Oceanfront land long has been considered among the priciest around, but The State reported in 2014 that homes behind the seawall were dropping in value because of the rising seas.

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