Affluent property owners win legal fight on SC coast

This home at Debordieu Beach, SC, is being protected by a wall of sand bags.  Critics say that's against state policy and bad for the beach.

This home at Debordieu Beach, SC, is being protected by a wall of sand bags. Critics say that’s against state policy and bad for the beach.

Affluent property owners at a South Carolina beach have scored a court victory that allows them to keep a wall of sandbags they were accused of installing illegally to protect their homes from rising seas.

An administrative law judge recently sided with a handful of property owners at Debordieu, dismissing a case that could have forced the sandbags to be removed. The decision is likely to be appealed by environmentalists who want the sandbag walls taken out.

The case is significant for multiple reasons, including whether leaving the bags in place will eventually make beach erosion worse at Debordieu’s southern end. While sandbags protect homes threatened by the sea, they also can speed up erosion of the public beach when hit by waves.

The larger issue is whether allowing the sandbags to remain in place will embolden other property owners to install sandbags without state permission, as the Debordieu property owners did, and to rely on a little known section of state law that allows for experimental beach protection measures.

In this case, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board approved leaving the sandbag walls as a research project. The Jan. 13 decision overruled the agency’s staff, which had said the sandbag walls were illegally installed and leaving the sandbags did not constitute a research project under state law.

Leslie Lenhardt, an attorney for the SC Environmental Law Project, said she has asked Administrative Law Judge Robert Reibold to reconsider his decision. If that effort is not successful, the group will appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals, she said. The non-profit legal service represents the Coastal Conservation League.

Environmentalists had challenged the DHEC board’s decision to allow the sandbags to stay in place, saying they were bad for the beach and against state law.

The sandbag walls are on the extreme lower end of a sagging seawall at Debordieu, a gated community near Pawleys Island in Georgetown County.

Property owners have for years sought help in protecting high-end homes from rising seas on Debordieu’s southern end. The area was renourished, with private funding, to widen the beach this summer. The sandbag walls are behind the renourished area, but are expected to become exposed to the ocean when the renourishment washes away in a few years.

Reibold’s Aug. 10 decision was based on a technicality, not the merits of the case, she said.

Reibold ruled that environmentalists did not give proper notice of their challenge to the DHEC board decision to a Coastal Carolina University scientist, meaning the case could not go forward. The scientist, Paul Gayes, also was not named as a party in the environmentalists’ challenge to the DHEC board decision, the judge ruled.

“The failure to name and timely serve Dr. Gayes with the request for a contested case hearing requires dismissal of this action,” the judge ruled.

Gayes worked with attorneys for the property owners to draft a proposal to research the sandbags if they were left in place. Records indicate that the research proposal he submitted to DHEC was initiated by property owners, whose lawyers helped edit the plan.

Lenhardt said the ultimate result of the case is an important issue for how South Carolina manages beaches in the future, particularly as the climate changes and sea levels continue to rise.

“Nobody can challenge the reality that sea level rise and climate change is going to create more and more conflict, and that conflict is not going to go away,” she said. She said if the decision is left to stand, “what will suffer is the beach that people come to enjoy.”

Attorneys Joe Owens and Randy Lowell, who represent the Debordieu property owners, were not immediately available for comment Wednesday. Property owners seeking to keep the sandbag walls purchased the property at Debordieu in the past 10 years.

Those owners are Price and Carolyn Sloan; Mark and Anne Tiberio; the Schulte Living Trust, whose trustees are Michael and Laura Schulte; and Northwest properties. Northwest is owned by Rodney Cain. Property records show home addresses in North Carolina.

DHEC officials declined to discuss the case, saying the matter involves pending litigation The department said it had filed a motion seeking clarity on a part of the ruling. But the agency said the motion was not a challenge to the administrative court decision

This story was originally published August 24, 2022 11:51 AM.

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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