Members of an environmental law group recently took action to stop the controversial Sea Pines seawall, claiming they found a loophole in the project that is being privately funded to protect five beachfront homes on Hilton Head from future storms.
The seawall is supposed to be completed by this weekend, according Bert Ellis, of the homeowners privately funding the $750,000 project.
Lawyers from the South Carolina Environmental Law Project filed a demand letter earlier this month with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The letter claimed the property owners building the seawall skirted around permitting processes that lawyers say must be required for construction of the island’s first seawall in 30 years.
Members of the Beaufort County Coastal Conservation League, a group sponsoring the letter, said the goal of the letter is to call attention to the oversight of the permits.
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“The construction happening on this site is happening without any state permits,” league member Rikki Parker said. “It’s really shocking to those of us who work in this field.”
The seawall has sparked outrage among neighbors who fear the wall will not only destroy the public beach, but increase flooding in surrounding homes, the Island Packet reported in April when construction began.
The proposed seawall, near Piping Plover Road, is a 450-foot-long metal wall buried between the five beachfront homes and the waterline. Ellis said once a sand dune is in place, none of the 20-foot-tall metal wall will extend above ground.
“The wall will disappear; you’ll never see the wall again,” Ellis said. “Unless we have another hurricane, you’ll never see it.”
Tropical Storm Irma and Hurricane Matthew washed out vegetation and sand surrounding Ellis’ home in 2016 and 2017. Fearing another storm, Ellis and neighbors decided a seawall was needed to protect their homes.
Cement has been poured on the south end beach, but environmental lawyers said they found a loophole that could stop construction or possibly force its removal. The letter states that the construction process required two different permits:
- General Permit for Stormwater Discharges from Construction Activities: This permit is required for projects that will affect more than 1 acre and needs to cover stormwater runoff, surface runoff and drainage associated with construction, according to the EPA.
Coastal Zone Consistency Certification: This permit is issued by DHEC and does not take the acreage of the project into account. The permit is issued when applicants prove “growth is most compatible with coastal resources” and development will not adversely affect the coastline.
Attorney Michael Corley, who wrote the letter, said the property owners have applied for neither of these permits and therefore “are in violation of the law.”
Ellis said that the permits addressed in the letter do not apply to this project, and that DHEC’s involvement in the planning processes confirms that. The demand letter does not directly threaten a lawsuit, but said it may come in the future if construction continues.
“They can litigate till the cows come home, but we permitted this thing with everybody,” Ellis said about a potential lawsuit.
However, Parker said that property owners in the neighborhood were never given the opportunity to speak on the issue while the project was in the planning stages.
“The project is significant enough that it should have gone up for public notice, and the public should have been able to comment on it,” she said.
Sea Pines resident Dana Advocaat, who owns property nearby, said that the seawall is in its final construction stages, and that cement was poured into the large wooden casements this week.
Linda Farrenkopf said she lives down the beach from the seawall and doesn’t approve of the project. She said she was not expecting construction to begin because Town Council member Tom Lennox told her it was unlikely that the homeowners could get approval from the town.
“I think the problem arises when the measure I take to protect my property negatively affects yours,” Farrenkopf said.
Lennox, who represents the south end of the island, said he was not aware of the letter and said the seawall “seems to be an issue between the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and (DHEC)” considering the letter was not sent to homeowners.
“Yes, I’m surprised that we will probably have a seawall on the island, but no, I’m not surprised because it’s on property owner’s land,” Lennox said.
How did it get approved?
The seawall falls in a gray area because since it’s technically on private property and does not need state approval. Ellis said the seawall would not need a state permit because the site will be too close to private property to be controlled by state setback lines. South Carolina’s Beachfront Management Act bans seawalls on the ocean side of the previously established setback lines.
In May, Gov. Henry McMaster signed the Beachfront Management Reform Act, which allows homeowners to choose which setback lines to follow, those set forth in 2012 or 2017. The reform act allows homeowners to follow the lines farthest from their property. The act specifies that new setback lines must be established in 2024.
The seawall is about 2 feet inland from the 2012 line, Ellis said. That means the state did not have to review the project— approval would have been needed only from the Town of Hilton Head and the Sea Pines architectural review board.
But the site was outside of the town’s jurisdiction, so it only required natural resource permits for the construction work after it was approved by Sea Pines, Ellis said.
Members of the Coastal Conservation League said the preferable way to protect both properties and the beach is through environmentally-friendly renourishment efforts that the town already has in place.
Corley said structures like seawalls often just redirect water to other areas, and that the project would create a higher danger of flooding for the homes that are a row behind the beachfront properties.
“Are we going to continue to be a state that continues to have big, beautiful, healthy beaches, or are we going to be a state that protects a couple of big oceanfront properties at the expense of the public beach?” Corley said.
Scientists argue the seawall would affect not just neighbors, but anyone who loves the beach.
“The science is clear. Seawalls on eroding shorelines destroy the beach,” Rob Young, a coastal geology professor at North Carolina’s Western Carolina University, who directs a program that studies developed shorelines, previously told the Island Packet.
A spokesperson for the recipient of the letter, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, told the Island Packet that “the department is currently evaluating the information presented.”
Ellis said he doesn’t think DHEC will respond to the letter, and said he does not think anything will happen as construction wraps up this week.