South Carolina

McMaster vetoes plan to help wealthy build seawall

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has blocked a last-minute plan to let wealthy oceanfront property owners rebuild a seawall on an eroding public beach in Georgetown County.

McMaster on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have exempted several dozen homes at Debordieu Beach from the state's ban on seawalls, The State reported.

Lawmakers had amended a bill to accommodate the Debordieu property owners who for years have fought to reconstruct a battered seawall. Rep. Davy Hiott, a Pickens Republican who chairs the House agriculture committee, pushed for the amendment.

In his veto message, McMaster said it was wrong for the Legislature to "hastily enact" a special exception to South Carolina's beachfront management law adopted more than 30 years ago and includes a ban on construction of new seawalls.

"The provision in question was a late hour amendment added to a bill that was debated and considered through the normal Legislative process," McMaster wrote. "The better course is for the General Assembly — in consultation with homeowners, civic leaders and environmental experts — to debate and decide legitimate policy issues involving our unique shoreline .... through open public processes."

McMaster's veto follows years of efforts by property owners at Debordieu to protect a handful of oceanfront homes on the gated community's southern shoreline. They say they need help because the ocean threatens their homes.

The concern over seawalls is simple: Waves bouncing off of seawalls speed up erosion on public beaches, giving less beach for the public to walk on. In some cases, like at Debordieu, seawalls actually extend onto the public beach, blocking people from walking along the seashore. Through the years, waves have routinely crashed against the Debordieu seawall.

"When we allow structures to be built close to the ocean, they threaten the existence of the public beach itself," said environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong, who said the Republican governor made the right decision.

Jim Christian, a Debordieu resident who does not live behind the seawall but supports the property owners, said McMaster shouldn't have vetoed the bill.

"I look forward to hearing what the governor has to say when a house floats out into the water and down into North Inlet," said Christian, a former president of the Debordieu Colony Community Association.

Hiott said no one approached him about amending the bill. The Legislature had approved a similar but temporary measure as part of the state budget in recent years, he said. All he was doing was trying to make the exemption permanent, he said.

Hiott said he's glad to help Debordieu because oceanfront homes provide tax revenue for Georgetown County and rebuilding a seawall only protects that.

"They are wanting to build their seawall back right where it was," Hiott said. "It's at their own expense and wasn't costing the state a dime. I don't have a problem with that. I've never had a problem with it."

In the past decade, the property owners have made other attempts to rebuild the seawall. They've also widened the beach through renourishment projects, but erosion rates are so high that the sand disappears in a matter of years.

Located south of Myrtle Beach, Debordieu is an exclusive, gated community with a thriving summer tourism business.

The Debordieu saga is sad for individual property owners, but it is a classic example of unwise coastal development practices, said Armstrong, an attorney with the nonprofit South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

The property owners built the seawall on an eroding beach before the state adopted a seawall ban in 1988. Now, Armstrong said, they want a bailout from the government.

"The policy decisions that the state makes need to account for the fact that there are rising sea levels, and we are experiencing erosion," she said. "We need to stop giving the OK to put people in harm's way. By allowing another seawall, we are saying you are safe to have a house here. Everybody knows it's not safe."

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