June 2, 2021

Supreme Court Rules Against Development on Captain Sams Spit for the Third Time

COLUMBIA, SC – Conservation groups are celebrating another major win in the long-running Captain Sams Spit legal saga, which yet again recognizes the significance and value of this special place.

Today, the state Supreme Court reversed the Administrative Law Court’s approval of a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall that would facilitate a developer’s efforts to build a 50-unit residential development on the uninhabited southern tip of Kiawah Island.

The unanimous ruling reaffirms that “the public’s interest must be the lodestar” when adjudicating matters affecting tidelands. Artificial modification must remain the “exception” for resources owned by the State and held in trust for the benefit of the public, according to the public trust doctrine. The ALC analysis is found “largely illusory” with respect to the alleged protection of the Beachfront Walker parking lot and, given the undisputed shoreline erosion on the riverbank, construction of the steel wall would lead to the same outcome the Supreme Court tried to avoid with its first ruling in 2014: “the complete loss of area held in trust for the benefit of the people.” Therefore, all the Justices agreed with us and expanded on an important precedent by stating that “while economic interests are relevant, relying on tax revenue or increased employment opportunities is not sufficient justification for eliminating the public's use of protected tidelands.”

The Coastal Conservation League, represented by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, have filed several challenges to permits associated with the proposed development in efforts to protect the iconic public resource over the last 12 years. Following today’s decision, the Supreme Court has now ruled in our favor on three separate permit appeals. In its last ruling in April 2018, the Court concluded that the public benefits to preserving the spit and blocked the construction of a half-mile long bulkhead/revetment on the Kiawah River.

“This is a resounding victory for the protection of Captain Sams Spit and the public,” said Amy Armstrong of SCELP. “It not only vindicates the efforts of so many years for preserving this state treasure—one of the three pristine beaches readily accessible to the general public—but it also reinforces the protections provided under the Coastal Zone Management Act. The Court rules that any known impact to tidelands, coastal waters, beaches and dunes including from projects out of such critical area must be considered to provide maximum public benefit. When balancing competing interests in these dwindling public trust resources, public beneficial uses must be prioritized.”

“Building homes on the fragile Captain Sams Spit was a bad idea years ago when the developer KDP first announced its plan to construct 50 homes there. The South Carolina Supreme Court drove home, for the third time, today that it’s still a bad idea,” said Laura Cantral, Executive Director, Coastal Conservation League. “The fragile piece of sand is no place for a 2,380-foot steel wall, along with a roadway, stormwater management system, and utility lines, which would have been devastating to such an ecologically sensitive and fragile landscape. Captain Sams is a valuable public resource. We are celebrating this victory, and we will continue our fight to protect Captain Sams Spit.”


Amy Armstrong, Esquire                                          

South Carolina Environmental Law Project              

amy@scelp.org or (843) 527-0078                          


Diane Knich

Coastal Conservation League

dianek@scccl.org or (843) 530-02111

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The South Carolina Environmental Law Project is a nonprofit public interest law firm. We use our legal expertise to protect land, water, and communities across South Carolina.

The Coastal Conservation League is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the coastal resources of South Carolina. Its mission is to protect the state’s natural landscapes, abundant wildlife, clean water, and quality of life. Since 1989, the Conservation League has carried out this mission by working with citizens, local government and the state legislature.  

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