Coastal Management

Debidue Groins, II

We are challenging a permit granted by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to construct three groins on Debidue Beach in Georgetown County. Armoring the shoreline with groins will negatively impact the members of the public who use and enjoy the beach.
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Case Background

On February 7, 2019, on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, SCELP filed a Request for Final Review Conference with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Board of Directors challenging the agency’s recent permit issued to Debordieu Colony Community Association (DCCA) authorizing the construction of three groins on Debidue Beach.

The proposed groin system would be located on the southernmost end of DCCA’s property, with the southernmost groin located on the boundary with Hobcaw Barony, the Baruch Foundation property that is home to the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (“NERR”) in Georgetown County.

The groins were intended to protect a narrow strip of oceanfront houses that were built well-seaward of other oceanfront houses at the southernmost tip of Debordieu Colony. The houses were armored with a partially-failing seawall, which was built parallel to the shoreline. The houses were unwisely built seaward of adjacent houses due to artificial beach accretion that resulted when canals were dredged in the salt marsh and the dredge material was placed onto the beach, in essence extending the shoreline seaward.

The Problem With Groins

Groins are erosion control structures constructed perpendicular to the beach, typically in an effort to protect beachfront houses. Groins work by capturing sand as it moves down the beach through longshore transport; however, in doing so, groins act to deprive the downdrift beaches of sand. The downdrift beaches, in this case, are the beaches that buffer one of the few pristine estuaries left in the United States and one of only 28 NERRs in the country and the pristine North Inlet estuary, where the majority of the waters are classified as Outstanding Resource Waters – the highest water classification in the state. The North Inlet-Winyah Bay NERR is hosted by the University of South Carolina’s Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences where scientists have been conducting long-term ecological studies on the normal functions of estuaries for decades.

A groin on Hunting Island State Park.

The permit decision authorizing the Debidue groin system was made in violation of applicable statutes, regulations and policies contained in the Coastal Zone Management Act (“CZMA”), S.C. Code Ann. §48-39-10, et seq., OCRM Regulations 30-1, et seq., the Coastal Management Program (“CMP”), and DHEC Regulations 61-101, et seq. Most specifically, the permit was issued in spite of the applicant’s multiple concessions that the permitted project will in fact have downdrift impacts in violation of applicable statutory and regulatory law. The groins will exacerbate erosion downdrift of the project, altering a pristine beach/dune system and harming the marine and wildlife which are dependent upon it.

On April 5, 2019, on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, SCELP filed an appeal before the South Carolina Administrative Law Court, urging the court to overturn a permit granted by the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control to construct three groins on Debidue Beach in Georgetown County. A copy of the Request for Contested Case Hearing can be downloaded below.

On August 28, 2019, the Administrative Law Court denied DeBordieu Colony Community Association’s request to lift the automatic stay, which would have enabled it to begin constructing three groins on Debidue Beach.

What Are the Threats?

"Constructing three massive groins on a stretch of fragile beach would absolutely cause irreparable harm — for downdrift beaches, for wildlife, and for one of the country’s last remaining pristine estuaries," the Conservation League's Laura Cantral said. "Up and down the coast and in Columbia, the Conservation League will continue to fight more attempts to meet climate change and sea level rise with hard structures that jeopardize the present and future health of our beaches."

For the ALC to deny the motion to lift the stay, the groups had to prove that groin construction would likely cause irreparable harm; that they are likely to succeed on the merits of the permit challenge; that the equities favor continuing the stay; and that the stay is in the public’s interest.

The ALC found that the Conservation League through SCELP had met each of these criteria, specifically noting that DeBordieu did not have the funds in place to remove the groins if they were constructed prior to trial and that DeBordieu could not proceed regardless in the absence of an Army Corps of Engineers permit. The ALC also identified flaws in DeBordieu’s erosion rate claims.

After an initial postponement earlier this year and despite some concerns about gathering in person, on August 24-26, 2020, we went to the Administrative Law Court in Columbia for a 3-day hearing before Judge Anderson, with dozens of exhibits and a total of ten witnesses, including 4 experts. Our attorneys were pleased with the testimony and evidence that was entered into the record. The next step is for the parties to submit proposed orders to the Judge and await his ruling.

On January 12, 2021, the Administrative Law Court issued an order upholding the groins permit. Just over a month later, we filed a notice with the state Court of Appeals on February 15, 2021.

Though the Administrative Law Court's Final Order is still pending before the Court of Appeals, Debordieu Colony is moving forward with plans to construct the groins and renourish under the critical area permit, beginning in November 2021 following the close of turtle nesting season.

When SCELP became aware of their intent to commence work, we filed a motion to stay all activities under the permit until the Court of Appeals has conducted its judicial review of the ALC's decision. A hearing was held on September 15, 2021 at the ALC in Columbia.

As we did in 2011, the last time Debordieu Colony sought to construct a new groin field, we trust we will ultimately succeed in overturning the authorization for this unwise and destructive project.

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