Coastal Management

Debidue Sandbags

The Department of Health and Environmental Control allowed four beachfront property owners leave an illegal sandbag seawall on the public beach as a so-called experiment. We are seeking both state and federal relief on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League.
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Case Background

In late 2021, we learned about out-of-state owners who illegally installed a massive sandbag seawall on Debidue Beach, leading the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to initiate an enforcement action. After a year of evading compliance, these owners next sought to allow the illegal wall to remain under the guise of an "experiment." Fortunately, DHEC staff rejected this request, but four homeowners appealed to the DHEC Board.

With our longstanding partners at the Coastal Conservation League, we submitted our factual and legal arguments to support the staff's expert and well-reasoned decision, which was considered at a DHEC Board meeting on January 13, 2022. To our disappointment, the DHEC Board voted 3-2 to allow the sandbag seawall to remain.

In February, the Board issued an official order granting experimental approval to the structure, overturning its staff’s decision to deny authorization for the research.

Legal Action  

On March 8, 2022, on behalf of the Conservation League, we filed an appeal of the DHEC Board’s decision with the South Carolina Administrative Law Court and issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act to DHEC, the property owners and Coastal Carolina University professor Paul Gayes, who plans to study the sandbag installation. 

Among the objections detailed in the Conservation League’s appeal, the order violates clear regulatory prohibitions against permanent sandbags, which are only allowed as temporary measures in emergency situations where existing structures are threatened. What’s more, the placement of the sandbags effectively has created a hard erosion control structure in contravention of the Beachfront Management Act. 

Cartoon by Robert Arial for Charleston City Paper

Further, according to the 60-day notice, the parties have violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to obtain an Incidental Take Permit prior to the placement of the sandbags and prior to DHEC’s approval to cover them with sand. Once the wall is covered with sand, it will almost certainly interfere with the nesting activities of endangered sea turtles, which is another violation of the ESA. 

“Burying illegally placed sandbags in the name of research represents nothing more than a dangerous attempt to skirt the law and chip away at longstanding coastal policies which will undoubtedly have major consequences for the rest of South Carolina’s beaches,” said, Emily Cedzo, the Coastal Conservation League’s Senior Director of Land, Water & Wildlife.

The notice indicates the Conservation League’s intent to bring an action in federal court seeking both an injunction against DHEC authorizations for similar installations on the beachfront and an order requiring the issuance of an Incidental Take Permit for the sandbag wall, or for the structure to be removed.

“The sandbags that were placed on the beach illegally are not new or unique and there is no scientific value in seeing what happens when they are covered with sand. Further, the sandbags are illegal not only under state law but also federal law and we are seeking relief under both,” said staff attorney Leslie Lenhardt.

Case Update

On May 10, 2022, the homeowners filed a Motion to Dismiss that was granted on August 10. The Administrative Law Court denied our motion to reconsider, and we filed to appeal that decision with the Court of Appeals on October 5, 2022 and are waiting for our day in court!

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