South Carolina’s 26-year-old seawall ban took another battering Thursday when a House committee voted to help an exclusive beach community rebuild a wall that protects fewer than 25 houses threatened by the ocean.
Despite evidence that seawalls worsen beach erosion, the House agriculture committee voted 17-1 for a bill exempting Debordieu Beach from the state’s 1988 ban on the concrete, metal and wooden walls. The bill now moves to the full House. The legislation breezed through the Senate last month.
Only Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, voted against the legislation Thursday.
Powers Norrell said she was given “talking points” by the House agriculture committee that suggested the legislation would allow Debordieu homeowners to fix holes in the aging wall, when in fact, it would allow a new wall to be built two feet farther out on the beach. Powers Norrell said new seawalls should not be encouraged in South Carolina.
“It sets a precedent,’’ Powers Norrell said, noting that she would urge the House to vote against the measure approved Thursday. “I’m sure if we do this for Debordieu, we’ll hear from Folly and Isle of Palms and other coastal towns that have erosion issues.’’
The bill gives Debordieu Beach seven years to rebuild or repair the wall. A bill that passed the Senate gave the community three years – and the House’s action invited immediate complaints from one conservation group that had agreed to the three years as a compromise.
The S.C. Coastal Conservation League said it would now oppose the bill. Conservationists fear the exemption for Debordieu could lead to other requests for exemptions, thus wrecking the statewide seawall ban. Debordieu is a gated community between Myrtle Beach and Georgetown.
Also Thursday, lawmakers watered down another part of the bill that would forbid new development from ever being built farther out on the beach, past a state building restriction line.
A special state Blue Ribbon panel recommended last year that South Carolina never move the state building restriction line seaward after this summer because it puts new development closer to the ocean – and damage from high seas. On some parts of the state’s coast, towering new buildings have been built closer to the ocean when the line was moved seaward following taxpayer-funded renourishment projects, which temporarily widened the beach.
But the agriculture committee agreed to delay banning the seaward movement of the line until 2021. Developers from Kiawah Island urged the House agriculture committee to continue allowing the state to move the building line seaward when warranted. They said Kiawah is building up, rather than eroding.
On the seawall issue, lawmakers said people in Debordieu Beach need help and letting them fix the seawall – at private expense – is warranted. The community also plans a beach renourishment project, to be privately funded.
The seawall ban is the cornerstone of South Carolina’s 1988 coastal protection law, but homeowners in the gated community of Debordieu Beach persuaded the state Senate last month to let them rebuild the battered, 4,000-foot bulkhead in an attempt to save their homes.
“Eventually, the beach will disappear in front of the seawall; that’s why states like South Carolina banned these things a long time ago,” said Rob Young, a coastal geologist who recently served on a blue ribbon study commission of South Carolina’s coastal laws.
“The state’s role is to protect those public-trust lands, not to protect investment property.”
Reps. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, and Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, said they’re trying to help people with a critical problem. Vick, Goldfinch and several other legislators visited the site, where some houses are close to the ocean and little beach exists in front of the seawall.
“At mid-tide, standing on their decks and watching the waves pound against those decks, it’s downright scary,” said Goldfinch, who represents homeowners in the area. “Their houses literally shake at night. They are scared to death.”
Georgetown County real estate records list fewer than 25 oceanfront beach houses, valued at more than $30 million, behind the wooden seawall. Overall, Debordieu has more than 1,200 developed home sites, both inland and along the shore, in the exclusive community south of Myrtle Beach.
Among those behind the seawall is former Coca Cola executive Beverly Freeman, a one-time Atlanta resident. She is a contact for Friends of Georgetown County Beaches, a little-known group that hired ex-state coastal regulator Wayne Beam to lobby for the Debordieu seawall, records show.
Others include Hopkins resident John L. Jackson, a former executive with the Jackson Camera chain in South Carolina; and one-time State Ports Authority chairman Harry J. Butler Jr., a prominent real estate businessman in Georgia and South Carolina, who is listed as a trustee for a home behind the seawall, records show.
Freeman and Jackson say they only want to protect their homes, not hurt the public beach, even as they wait on a privately funded renourishment project. Jackson said Wednesday he’d rather have renourishment to widen the beach than rely on a seawall.
Butler, who records show has contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for state office, could not be reached Wednesday.
Goldfinch and Vick said they do not believe the Debordieu exemption will cause a flurry of new seawall requests. Instead, Goldfinch said the legislation will merely allow Debordieu to make repairs to the wall, rather than build a new one.