November 20, 2020

Sammy Fretwell

Wealthy coastal residents remove illegal seawalls. But dispute rages as seas rise

Virtually every property owner who built seawalls in an exclusive oceanfront community south of Myrtle Beach has torn down the walls they hoped would protect the neighborhood’s high-end homes from rising tides and storms.

But the decision to remove the structures, a victory for beach protection advocates who say seawalls worsen erosion, doesn’t end the dispute at Litchfield Beach over how — and whether — to protect one of the narrowest, most storm-threatened stretches of South Carolina’s coast.

Property owners who live in The Peninsula at Inlet Point South want the federal government to approve a controversial beach renourishment project that would widen a half-mile-long stretch of the sand spit by about 50 yards.

The extra sand would help protect more than $60 million worth of houses with grand views of the Atlantic Ocean and the salty, wildlife-rich tidelands at Litchfield’s southern-most tip.

Unfortunately for Peninsula property owners, not many people seem to like the plan. While the landowners would pay the estimated $8 million to $10 million tab for renourishment, others say the project could kill rare sea turtles, clog up a nearby inlet and deposit so many shells on the beach that it would make walking on the shore difficult for vacationers.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League has challenged a plan to allow the renourishment as proposed, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing whether the project could hurt loggerhead sea turtles, long-lived reptiles that nest on state beaches, as well as seven other species.

Last month, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources wrote a letter expressing concern about the project’s impacts on endangered and threatened species.

Neighbors, including one Peninsula property owner who is at odds with his own community association, fear the project will be like one that recently used course, shell-packed sediment to widen the beach at southern Pawleys Island, prompting an outcry from beachcombers.

Dan Thompson, who has lived at The Peninsula since 2015, said some property owners want the renourishment so they can sell their homes. He has balked at paying for the project, the cost of which would be borne by The Peninsula homeowners.

“It’s not a solution,’’ said Thompson, who retired to Litchfield Beach from Canada. “This is motivation to get it done, so they can sell their places and get the hell out of here. It’s not because they’re looking out for the longevity of a nice beach.’’

The dispute between Thompson and the homeowners group has become so contentious that the association has filed a lien against him, seeking an installment payment of more than $8,000, records show.. Thompson said he won’t pay it.

Steven Traynum, a renourishment consultant to the property owners, downplayed concerns about the renourishment project. It will be monitored carefully by his company to make sure wildlife isn’t affected and quality sand is deposited on the beach, said Traynum, who is with Coastal Science and Engineering of Columbia.

The Peninsula neighborhood, where homes are valued at more than $2 million apiece, is on a skinny finger of land between the ocean and a tidal creek. The spit is just wide enough for the single row of nearly three dozen houses and a narrow, two-laned road. Docks jut into the marsh on the other side of the road.

Unlike other small spits with towering beach homes, such as the south end of nearby Pawleys Island, The Peninsula has only been developed in the past 30 years.

Property owners at The Peninsula, a section of Inlet Point, include renowned sports figures, like retired NASCAR driver Cale Yarborough, the chairman of the state Department of Natural Resources, Norman Pulliam, and successful business people from across the Carolinas and other states.

Emily Cedzo, who tracks beach issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the renourishment has plenty of environmental concerns that need to be addressed. But either way, the extra sand will only provide temporary relief to the larger problem of what to do with developed land in high-hazard areas, she said.

“To me, The Peninsula area identifies the need to come up with longer term planning on how we’ll manage these especially vulnerable areas,’’ Cedzo said.

Leslie Lenhardt, a lawyer for the non-profit S.C. Environmental Law project, said The Peninsula’s fight with the ocean should be a warning to those who want to build on other vulnerable barrier islands and sand spits — particularly at a time of rising seas and climate change..

Proposals on the drawing boards include building a resort on a fragile island near Beaufort and high end homes on an exposed sand spit at Kiawah Island.

“People have their heads in the sand about dangerous, risky decisions to put up habitable structures, like hotels, that are close to the ocean,’’ she said. “They are not thinking in the long term.’’

Three major hurricane-driven storms and a handful of smaller ones have drenched the gated community since 2015, washing away dunes and decks, and leaving property owners scrambling to hold back the sea.

Recent impacts from storms reinforce the hazard of developing on vulnerable land, said Rob Young, a Western Carolina University professor who studies coastal erosion.

The development on Litchfield’s southern tip began after Hurricane Hugo, a devastating storm that splintered coastal communities in 1989. Many of the homes are vacation properties owned by people who live elsewhere. Before the property was developed, the land was little more than a pristine mound of dunes and sea oats.

Young, one of the southeast’s foremost coastal geologists, said the Litchfield spit is among the most vulnerable places on the South Carolina coast for storm damage and flooding from the ocean. The property is considered hazardous enough for new development that the federal government won’t provide flood insurance at The Peninsula.

“That whole spit was under water during Hurricane Hugo; it should never have been developed,’’ Young said. “This is a really, really, really narrow spit of land with no elevation. The fact that development was permitted out there in the first place is a grand failing of coastal management. And I think everybody bears some responsibility for that.’’

Homes were built on the property beginning in the 1990s after buyers were persuaded that the land was stable, some Peninsula property owners and their neighbors have said. The area had a period of relatively calm weather and low erosion rates before storms began to intensify more recently, they have said.

It was unclear this past week how much pushback developers received from state regulators when The Peninsula was first proposed.

Records show that the project developer, the former Litchfield Co., and coastal regulators had a dispute over the number of docks that should be allowed in the area.

But James B. Moore Jr., an attorney who represented the Litchfield Co., said homes at The Peninsula were built within the law and behind setback lines, which keep development from getting too close to the beach. The Litchfield Co. that developed the property was dissolved and is not the same one that exists today, Moore said.

Representatives of The Peninsula homeowners group that favors the renourishment were unavailable to discuss the beach widening effort or their decision to build — then later remove — the illegal wooden seawalls.

Records show, however, that seawalls and renourishment have been on the minds of some property owners.

During a conference call with the Department of Health and Environmental Control in April 2019, property owner John Blount said he had spent “a good bit of money removing sand from underneath his home’’ after storms and needed help, according to a DHEC memo obtained by The State newspaper.

“He stated that he understood that sea level was rising and that water was coming at them in both directions, and he needed the wall in place to protect his property and his investment,’’ according to the DHEC memo.

Blount expressed concern about the lack of government help, telling DHEC official Brittany Miles that he could not get a bank loan, money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or flood insurance to help out because he is “basically on a barrier island,’’ the memo said.

Records show he has spoken in favor of both seawalls and beach renourishment. Efforts by The State to reach Blount were unsuccessful.

Blount was among the owners of four lots at The Peninsula who recently agreed to pay a total of $18,000 in fines and remove seawalls in front of their homes. DHEC officials say only one seawall remains of the original 19 they found in 2018 and 2019 because all other property owners have settled with the agency. The remaining case is under negotiation, state officials say.

Property owners who agreed most recently to tear out seawalls and pay fines include Brian and Konni McMurray, who have been fined $10,000 over seawalls along two lots, and Christopher and Carol Lee, who have been fined $5,000 over a seawall on one lot. Blount was fined $3,000 over a seawall on one lot.

The cases were resolved in September and announced earlier this month by DHEC. Some of the wooden seawalls built by property owners were 65 to nearly 100 feet long and three to five feet high, records show.

Seawalls protect homes on the oceanfront, but the walls have been banned in South Carolina since the 1980s because they make beach erosion worse.

Efforts to reach state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch and Randy Lowell, attorneys representing some of the property owners, were not successful.

The seawall issue and the Litchfield renourishment project have been sources of unrest in the community for much of this year.

With state regulators moving to have the walls torn out, property owners at The Peninsula first proposed a large renourishment project that would have included a stretch of beach that extended outside The Peninsula.. They abandoned that plan after property owners who don’t live on the beach balked at paying for the sand project.

Then, The Peninsula owners proposed trucking in sand, which drew loud complaints over the expected noise and disruption of communities outside the gated Inlet Point development. The latest plan, unveiled Oct. 2, narrows the project to only the half-mile section of beach in front of The Peninsula’s 33 lots.

But the latest plan has also caused a stir, this time over environmental impacts. The biggest obstacles to obtaining a federal permit to renourish the beach may be sea turtles.

Listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, loggerhead turtles rely heavily on the beaches of South Carolina to lay eggs. They typically begin moving ashore in May, with nesting and hatching occurring through the summer before the season ends in October.

Property owners, however, want permission to conduct the renourishment in May and June of next year because they badly need the beach widening project, a consultant to The Peninsula said. These projects, which either truck in sand or pump it in from the ocean, have been used for decades in South Carolina to protect billions of dollars in seaside property.

Traynum, a coastal scientist hired by the property owners to design the project, said conducting the renourishment during parts of the sea turtle season will make it easier to find dredging companies to do the work, which could keep the cost of the project down.

Because renourishment projects are often done in the winter when sea turtles are less active, it’s harder to find dredging companies that time of year. The Peninsula renourishment effort needs flexibility because the federal government may not decide on a permit in time to do the work before nesting season starts in early May, he said.

“Ideally we like to do these projects in the winter,’’ Traynum said. “But with the state of the beach in that area, we feel like we’ve got to get this done as quickly as we can.’’

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve the renourishment, will weigh concerns before making a decision. But It could be April before it makes a decision, said Sean McBride, a Corps spokesman in Charleston.

Traynum said his company will make extra efforts to monitor the project if it is conducted during turtle nesting season to make sure loggerheads and other species stay safe. Those efforts also include keeping shields on lights so that sea turtles won’t be scared away from potential nesting sites, he said. He also noted that other renourishment projects have been allowed by the federal government during turtle nesting season..

The Conservation League, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the S.C. Environmental Law Project aren’t persuaded, particularly when some of the work may rely on a type of dredge that can pull sea turtles into its suction pipe and kill them. And they say sea turtles aren’t the only rare species at risk.

“If this permit is issued, the Corps would be greatly discounting harm to a variety of species, including sea turtles, birds and fish, many of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act,’’ Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Chris DeScherer wrote in a Nov. 4 comment letter to the Corps.

The letter also said climate change is expected to hurt the recovery of endangered species as sea levels rise in South Carolina, making it imperative not to interrupt breeding or nesting season for sea turtles. And it echoed concerns among some local residents about the quality of the sand.

Thompson, the property owner at odds with The Peninsula owners association, said he finds it hard to believe that the creek separating the southern Litchfield spit from Pawleys Island won’t fill in once the renourishment washes away from the oceanfront. The inlet already is filled with shoals, and more sand could make the area harder to navigate for recreational boaters, he said.

Traynum’s company, which was hired by the Litchfield property owners to conduct the renourishment, says the project will help the community — without the environmental impacts many people fear. Coastal Science and Engineering has been designing beach renourishment projects since the 1980s.

Traynum said his company has found a sand deposit several miles into the ocean that provides smoother material that is more compatible with the beach at Litchfield than the material pumped on Pawleys Island. He also dismissed concerns about the renourishment clogging up the inlet between Litchfield and Pawleys because sediment has a natural tendency to flow out of the inlet into the ocean, instead of the other way around.

“Restoration will provide storm protection for properties, reduce the probability of ongoing washover, create a healthy habitat for sea turtles, enhance and improve the beach recreational area, reduce maintenance (and) repair costs for owners, and enhance community property values,’’ according to an October letter from Coastal Science and Engineering to property owners.

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