Dispute between conservationists, officials could doom Folly Beach park
FOLLY BEACH — An overwash beach is a glorified sandbar. That’s now the future of the once popular, now-closed county park here.
The Coastal Conservation League is opposing a permit to let the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission build a groin into the ocean to slow erosion at the disappearing Folly Beach County Park. A project manager for the league said if the permit is granted, the league will appeal and take the case to court, if needed.
If that happens, the commission will walk away, said Executive Director Tom O’Rourke.
“There will be no ‘few years in court.’ That beach almost isn’t there now. We don’t have any time to wait. We’re not going to be able to save the park in the future because there’s not going to be any park to save. It’s now or it’s gone,” he said.
The conservation league’s Katie Zimmerman said its staff wants to work with park and Folly Beach officials to “find a way to get people their park without destroying bird habitat and literally throwing money into the sea.”
Asked if there is another location the park could be moved to, she said, “I hope so.”
Mayor Tim Goodwin called that prospect void. The former Coast Guard property at the island’s east end can’t be used because currents are too dangerous to swim, he said. “There’s not another potential in our town.”
What is a groin?
The commission wants to erect a $3 million groin 200 feet out to sea to partly dam the flow of sand in the current along the shore. The groin would rebuild some beach and protect sand renourishment.
A groin is a barrier, usually rock or wood, that runs like a wall out from the dunes. Groins are controversial precisely because they disrupt the shore-current sand, depleting the supply downstream of the groin. State policy discourages them.
The park is built on a volatile spit of sand at the island’s far western end toward Kiawah Island. It closed in 2011 after waves from Hurricane Irene tore through the dunes and crossover boardwalks.
The dunes are now gone, except for some emergency shoring up; high tides overwash the park in several places, and little of the parking lot is left usable.
Downstream in the shore current from the park are Bird Key Stono and Skimmer Flats in the Stono River, important as a shorebird rookery and feeding ground, respectively. They are becoming more important as the nearby Crab Bank rookery erodes away.
The league is concerned that the groin would steal sand from the key and the flats without doing enough to salvage the park. O’Rourke said the commission’s study has shown that it won’t.
Both sides have coastal engineers who agree with them. The permit application includes a provision that the commission will set aside $250,000 to mitigate any damage that might result from the groin, including potentially removing it, O’Rourke said.
The commission plans to pay for the entire project with funds in bond money and reserves.
The park drew more than 100,000 people per year; since it closed, Kiawah’s Beachwalker Park has been overrun and the Isle of Palms park jammed. They are the only three sizable public-access beach parks in the Charleston area.
The Folly park’s erosion is partly due to sand-flow disruption by the Charleston jetties, a problem that exacerbates erosion all along the five miles of Folly Beach. The federal government is required to pay the biggest share for periodic beach renourishment, because of the Army Corps of Engineers-built jetties, but ongoing federal budget problems and posturing are delaying that money.
“What a lot of people lose sight of is that we’re not fighting Mother Nature. Folly Beach is fighting bad engineering,” Goodwin said. The league’s opposition is a shame and shortsighted, he said. The loss of the park could mean the key and flats eventually are overrun.
“This is a place where hundreds of people from the tri-county area go every weekend. (The league) is not fighting Folly Beach or the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. They’re fighting the people of the tri-county area,” he said. “Well, we’ll see what the public thinks of it.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.