Beaufort News

Harbor Island erosion-control system to remain — for now

Experimental erosion-control devices will remain up on Harbor Island and Isle of Palms while property owners challenge an order for their removal.

Environmental groups had threatened legal action, saying the so-called wave dissipation system affects turtle-nesting activity. A state environmental agency had ordered the wave dissipation system removed by Thursday, citing the end of a study period and concerns the structure was inhibiting threatened sea turtles.

Attorneys representing property owners on Harbor Island and Island of Palms filed several separate requests for final review with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control this month. The action puts a hold on DHEC’s order July 8 to remove the system.

The DHEC board of directors will consider the property owners’ requests and the agency’s response in early August and decide whether to hear the challenge, spokeswoman Cassie Harris said Thursday.

“(Our attorney) pleaded our case,” Harbor Island property owner Tricia Gardner said. “That we entered into this knowing full well it was a study but that the probability of it becoming something more permanent is very high, or we wouldn’t have invested the money.”

The removal order followed the threat of a lawsuit by the S.C. Environmental Law Project on behalf of environmental groups saying the structures impede federally protected turtles that nest on the South Carolina coast from May through early August.

At issue were “false crawls” documented in front of the structures — tracks showing a turtle having walked up the beach and returned to the water without laying eggs.

The system is made of heavy-duty pipe anchored to cylindrical posts. The horizontal section is designed to be dismantled during turtle-nesting season but remained in place during nesting this year because of on the ongoing study.

Attorney Matthew Hamrick, who represents the system’s creator, said earlier this month the turtles had not been hindered and that the area behind the structure wasn’t suitable for nesting.

Hamrick declined to comment Thursday. Mary Shahid, an attorney with Nexsen Pruet who represents system owners on Harbor Island and Isle of Palms, also declined to comment.

In her request for review provided by DHEC on Thursday, Shahid said the Law Project didn’t prove turtles had tried to nest in front of the device and that false crawls are common along the coast. Property owners asked that the system remain in place until the results of the study are analyzed for the wall’s effectiveness.

The owners paid to install the experimental system last year. The structure was created by Deron Nettles and is being studied by engineers at The Citadel.

The system aims to lessen the impact of waves and build sand behind the wall.

Not everyone is sold. A petition circulated by the state chapter of the Sierra Club urged DHEC to follow through on the removal order.

Turtle volunteers on Harbor Island say this has been the program’s most successful year since its formation in the 1990s, according to the group’s Facebook page. Volunteers have discovered 103 nests, with 4,700 eggs, according to numbers reported as of Wednesday.

Of those, 966 turtles have hatched.

Baby turtles on Harbor Island, posted to the Harbor Island Turtle Program page

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen