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Hilton Head’s new dune project starts this week. Here’s how it will change the beach

A North Forest Beach homeowner received approval from the Town of Hilton Head and S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to construct a boardwalk and dune about 20 feet seaward of their former primary dune.
A North Forest Beach homeowner received approval from the Town of Hilton Head and S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to construct a boardwalk and dune about 20 feet seaward of their former primary dune. Maggie Angst

Grayson and Glenda Harralson, homeowners on Hilton Head Island’s North Forest Beach, are concerned that their beach — the beach that so many tourists come to enjoy — is shrinking.

Last year, a property owner began building a new home at 35 Dune St. in the North Forest Beach neighborhood. After digging out sand for a pool, the owner received permission to use that sand to build a new berm about 20 feet seaward from his primary dune. He then constructed a boardwalk over the top of the new berm and onto the beach.

Watching the construction of the boardwalk, local homeowners grew concerned about the effect to the beachfront, as well as the precedence it set.

“It’s going to be a mess at high tide,” Grayson said. “People are not going to be able to walk up and down the beach without running into this big, long boardwalk they put out there.”

“And once it starts, it starts,” Glenda added.

Rocky Browder, environmental planner for the Town of Hilton Head Island, said the property owner’s plans were permitted by both the town and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

In fact, the owner just “got a little jump-start” on an island-wide dune restoration project that will fall in line with the berm the homeowner created, Browder said.

Earlier this week, contractors began work on the Post-Hurricane Matthew Island-Wide Dune Restoration Project.

The project, which includes installing 10 miles of sand fencing and salt-tolerant vegetation from South Forest Beach to North Palmetto Dunes, aims to re-establish dunes lost to Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma.

It is expected to take two months to complete.

According to Browder, homeowners who usually walked through the primary dune in front of their properties to get to the beach suffered the most dune loss after Hurricane Matthew.

“People walk over the primary dune and create these voids, compacting the sand and killing the vegetation we’re trying to establish,” he said. “Then, when a storm surge comes in, the surge goes up through the gaps and gets behind the primary dune. When the water from the storm surge goes to leave, it takes the entire dune with it.”

Browder said the main focus for the town and state is to try to avoid that issue by re-establishing the dune field and encouraging others to extend their dune walkovers similar to the new boardwalk on North Forest Beach.

“Everybody hates it (the boardwalk) because they say it’s an eyesore or it’s taking away the public beach,” Browder said. “But as a coastal geologist, my first mindset is to encourage strong protection. It (the beach) is a recreational resource, but at the same time, you want to protect it.

“I personally feel that having healthy dunes and not walking through it is more important, and with an eye toward the future, we hope it (the berm) establishes itself and others on either side of him do the same.”

Scott Liggett, chief engineer for the Town of Hilton Head Island, said the town is focused on trying to make the dune field 20 feet wider than it is now.

Once the sand fencing is up and the dunes start to accumulate, the boardwalk will fit right in, he said.

“Had our dune project advanced a month ago and folks could see that, I think there may have been less concern over what’s an obvious dune field as opposed to now, where you have this boardwalk that appears to be out of place,” Liggett said.

Even after speaking with town officials, though, the Harralsons still remain concerned over what they feel is a shrinking of the beachfront.

“They’re encouraging people to do it; that’s what bothers us,” Grayson said. “We could do it too, but again, if the tide came up, the people are walking right there are going to walk right into it.”

Liggett, on the other hand, said he does not view the project as a “net loss or net negative or anything but beneficial to beach users and adjacent property owners.”

“Some areas lost 70 feet of vegetation after Hurricane Matthew. Even with us trying to replant 20 feet, it’s far less than what was there before,” he said. “We’re just trying to plant back areas substantially lost to storms.”

The dune restoration project cost the town approximately $290,000, but the bulk of the project is eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement, Liggett said.

Maggie Angst: 843-706-8137, @maggieangst

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