A Beaufort County community has sued the state in an effort to remove crumbling houses from its eroded beach.
The Harbor Island Owners Association said in a complaint filed in Beaufort County court Thursday that six homes along the beach fronting St. Helena Sound are now part of public property and that South Carolina is responsible for having them removed.
The houses are unfit to live in, dangerous and block people from being able to walk freely on the beach, the court papers allege. Property values have been affected by the damaged homes and the debris is harmful to the environment, the homeowners group said in the lawsuit filed by attorneys with the S.C. Environmental Law Project.
“South Carolina law places great value on the public’s ability to access and use our public trust lands, and specifically the beach where these houses are located,” said Amy Armstrong, executive director of the Environmental Law Project. “Under our laws, the state has an obligation to maintain and protect that public access and use and should remove the houses.”
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The environmental group wrote S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson in September asking he remove the houses under state law related to nuisance structures in public waterways. The Attorney General’s office told Armstrong this week it had reviewed the letter and didn’t plan to act, and the lawsuit was filed the next day.
A spokesman for Wilson said the attorney general was out of the office for a conference and not immediately available for a response Friday morning.
Beachfront homeowners on Harbor Island have battled erosion for years.
They received permission from state environmental regulators to deploy hundreds of sandbags amid storms and abnormally high “king” tides in 2015. Some purchased experimental barriers known as wave dissipation systems in an attempt to slow the ocean’s onslaught and effects of erosion.
The plastic sea walls were later ordered removed by a federal judge over concerns the structures impeded sea turtle nesting. Hurricane Matthew further damaged the homes in 2016 and some owners are still trying to recoup insurance money.
Some property owners have moved their houses to other lots, and one had his house torn down.
Remaining homes are unstable, with pieces falling onto the beach and into the ocean, and in addition to pollution their condition “takes away from the aesthetic of living in a beachfront community,” Armstrong said.
Harbor Island Owners Association president Karl Mack said when the initial letter was sent that he was sympathetic to the beachfront property owners but that the buildings were a safety and environmental hazard and that association rules must be followed.
“If they can be rehabbed and repaired, wonderful,” he said. “If they have to come down, they have to come down. What can’t happen is they can’t be allowed to stay in the condition they are in.”