Hilton Head Plantation has been dumping sand on its Pine Island Beach for years, but Port Royal Sound’s unrelenting waves continue to wash it away.
The gated community’s property owners have paid to bulk up their local beach through annual assessments but are now hoping the town will step up to help.
The community’s general manager, Peter Kristian, told the town’s Finance Committee last week that short-term and long-term solutions are needed for the beach, which juts out like a thumb from the Dolphin Head recreation area at the confluence of Skull Creek and the sound.
The spit at the entrance to the beach has narrowed to about 20 feet at high tide, leaving little distance between the sound and marsh. During storms and higher-than-usual tides, especially like ones experienced last October, the sound has washed over the slender spit, taking with it tons of sand. When that happens, the community pays to haul in sand by truck to try to rebuild the beach, Kristian said.
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“We have a unique ecosystem and marsh behind it,” Kristian said. “If that Pine Island beach fails, it’s going to affect everything on the other side of the marsh.” That could include homes, he said.
The request, however, would go beyond the town’s current beach management program and delve for the first time into inshore management, say town officials. The committee asked town staff to look into the request but also consider the possibility of a townwide policy on inshore estuarine erosion.
Rather than focus on one area, committee member Bill Harkins said, the town should consider an overall policy that would be fair islandwide. He mentioned similar concerns about erosion in Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes.
The town has expanded its beach renourishment program over the years to less tourist-oriented beaches in Sea Pines and Port Royal Plantation, but there are several issues to be considered for expanding to Pine Island.
For one, accommodations taxes are not collected within Hilton Head Plantation, says town manager Steve Riley. Those taxes on overnight lodging are the town’s main funding source for beach renourishment, and the other beachside communities have hotels and other rental accommodations that capture those taxes.
Pine Island is also largely closed to the general public, Riley said.
Other gated communities have restricted beach access, but people can still reach beaches by walking along the shore. To get to Pine Island from outside the Hilton Head Plantation gates requires a boat or an arduous trek up the beach along Port Royal Sound.
There is also the cost. The community budgets about $60,000 to $80,000 a year for mini-renourishments, but starting next year, it will need to begin applying for new environmental permits. The community has budgeted about $100,000 for the permitting process, Kristian said.
The last big renourishment in 2011 cost about $500,000.
Kristian hopes the town will help with those costs. He also believes a long-term solution, such as constructing a “living wall” that marine life could attach to and would curb the waves hitting the beach, is needed.
The community has spent about $1 million over 15 years on the beach, but in the last few years, the spit has become more vulnerable, he said. He points to Port Royal Plantation, which has a similar sound estuarine system and has been part of the town’s beach renourishment program.
“There’s a public need there,” he said. “There’s the image of Hilton Head Island that needs to be maintained. When you go along Port Royal Plantation ... doing beach renourishment, they are looking at shoreline management as well as beach line management, and we should really be a part of that.”
For now, Pine Island beach remains a popular amenity for Hilton Head Plantation residents, after two small renourishments in late 2015.
Residents out walking on the Pine Island beach last week were pleased with the work that has, so far, saved the island from the sound.
Whether the town should help pay for it, however, brought different reactions.
“There are a lot of people paying property taxes here that support the town, so I think a little quid pro quo from the town supporting the cost of saving the coastline and the beaches is important,” said resident Claudette Blondin.
Resident Jim Reichert also enjoys the Pine Island beach, walking it four to five times a week, but he also worries about the expense of constantly replenishing its sand.
“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” he said. “They’re fighting against, it seems to me, the natural forces.”
Riley, the town manager, said town staff is currently focused on the upcoming $20.7 million beach renourishment that begins March 1 in the South Beach area of Sea Pines. The renourishment will stretch from south of Coligny Circle to The Folly at Singleton Beach into May. And then the project skips over to the heel of Port Royal Plantation and areas along Port Royal Sound in the Fish Haul, Spa and Mitchelville areas, with a scheduled ending there by late-June.
Riley said he would recommend the town wait until the beach project is finished before looking into inshore management.