For years, Sidi Limehouse put up hand-painted signs near Rosebank Farms on Johns Island touting everything from tomatoes to Easter egg hunts. When the area's real estate sales wilted, he had one made saying: "Wanted: real estate agents to pick beans! See Sidi."
Then last month, he put up another: "Develop Cap'n Sam's Spit? No way." The sign included a phone number for Friends of the Kiawah River, a group he founded to oppose the development of Kiawah's southern tip.
After Limehouse put up that sign, the county received several e-mails from what one official described as "real estate agents and developers who work at that end of the county." The county declined a request under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act to provide copies of the e-mails.
A few weeks later, the county sent notices to Limehouse's landlord: Take down the signs by April 6 or face fines.
Limehouse said the county's actions are a form of selective prosecution. "I had those signs up for years, but they didn't have any problem until I put up the Captain Sam's Spit sign."
Limehouse contends the zoning ordinance allows him to have at least one per parcel. "So I left the Captain Sam's Spit one up," he said with a laugh. The rest are strewn in the brush, as if knocked down by a heavy wind.
The sign fracas represents the latest wrinkle in the high-stakes debate over the future of Kiawah Island's undeveloped southern tip, a line of dunes that may be the most beautiful development battleground in the Lowcountry.
Set next to the county's Beachwalker Park, the spit curls south, growing wider as it nears the inlet and Seabrook Island. Bottlenose dolphins sometimes drive fish ashore here, temporarily beaching themselves while they feed, something known to happen in only one other place in the world.
Kiawah Development Partners, the island's master developer, owns the 150-acre sand spit and wants to build up to 50 homes there. The company's plans came to light last summer after a Post and Courier Watchdog report showed how U.S. Rep. Henry Brown wanted to change a federal law so future homeowners on the spit could get an insurance break.
Brown withdrew his bill after a storm of criticism, but Kiawah Development Partners said they would develop the dunes anyway.
Late last year, the project hit another hurdle. Kiawah Development Partners wanted a state permit to build a half-mile concrete revetment on the back side of the spit along the Kiawah River. But the state instead granted the company a permit to build a 270-foot revetment next to the Beachwalker Park parking lot, one-tenth the size the developers requested.
Kiawah Development Partners then hired two prominent lawyers, Trenholm Walker and Gedney Howe, to take the state to court.
Walker and Howe argue in court papers and other documents that the Department of Health and Environmental Control should have granted the permit because the erosion represents an emergency. The river is eating into the bank, particularly around the county park. They said the bulkhead their clients hope to build would be an environmentally sensitive structure that would slope into the water and have holes that would allow plant growth.
The Coastal Conservation League also went to court, challenging DHEC's decision to grant the smaller revetment. A trial date has yet to be set, and it could be months or years before the issue is settled.
Outside the courtroom, the debate has only gotten more vigorous.
Local environmentalists recently produced a video, "50 Houses on Kiawah Sand," featuring geologists who question the wisdom of building on barrier island spits. The case is drawing national interested from scientists who study diamondback terrapins, which make their homes along the bank where the developers want to put the revetment.
And then there's Limehouse, a scrappy Johns Island character with a thick gray beard. He said his Friends of Kiawah River group is adding new members every week.
Noting that the county only leases the land for Beachwalker Park, he worries that the developers will try to move the park to another place on Kiawah. The parking lot now blocks access to Captain Sam's Spit.
"There's a lot of money at stake, and I think my next sign will be something that says, 'Save Beachwalker Park,' " he said, adding that "I don't mind a good fair fight, but I think getting the county to go after my signs was going below the belt, but that's all right."
Walker said he was unaware of the Limehouse sign issue, and Leonard Long, Kiawah Development Partners' executive vice president, declined to comment.
In declining to release the identities of those who complained about the signs, Charleston County issued a statement saying it's allowed to release this information under the Freedom of Information Act, but that it also has the authority to keep such information secret.
Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said he knew of no exemption in the law that allows the county to withhold the e-mailed complaint to the county.
He compared the e-mail complaint to an incident report made to police, which is public information. "They should release that information immediately," Rogers said.
County officials said they were just doing their jobs when they told Limehouse to get rid of his signs and that they recently identified other sign violations in the area.
National Geographic Video
Bottlenose Hunt on Sandy Shore, National Geographic showing bottlenose dolphins leaping onto the beach near Kiawah to get fish.