The battle

WHAT NOW: The Coastal Conservation League and Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission are at loggerheads over how to handle potential environmental problems caused by building a groin to restore sand at Folly Beach County Park.

WHAT HAPPENED: Storm tides that followed damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011 have overrun the park before a mandated sand renourishment of Folly Beach could take place. The renourishment, meanwhile, has been stalled by federal budget crimps and political posturing. Park officials are attempting their own fix.

WHAT’s NEXT: Regulators are expected to issue next week a “biological opinion” on the environmental impact of the groin, a pivotal document in the decision whether to grant the permit.

A little more than a month ago, an agreement was only days away to keep the restoration of Folly Beach County Park on track. Both sides were confident in the battle over a groin to save the park.

Erosion control

Groins are erosion-control barriers, usually rock or wood, built into the surf to partly dam the flow of sand in the current along the shore.

Now it’s a standoff, and the anger on both sides is growing. Meanwhile, storm tides sweep across more of the once-popular park, tearing through what’s left of the dunes, turning it into an over-washed sandbar.

The future of the closed park is at stake — or the future of the nearby Bird Key Stono/Skimmer Flats shorebird grounds, depending on which side you ask.

Person-to-person discussions over the proposed groin barrier have devolved into a “position paper” hand-delivered to the Coastal Conservation League, fashioned by an attorney for the Charleston Park and Recreation Commission.

Tom O’Rourke, commission director, said discussions broke down over the league’s “demand” that a coastal scientist not involved with the project be brought in to monitor the groin’s environmental impact.

Dana Beach of the league said it wasn’t a demand but a statement that Coastal Carolina University marine scientist Paul Gayes is the best man to do it.

Park officials “are asking the consultant who is doing the project to judge whether he was wrong (about the groin),” Beach said.

Regulators are close to deciding whether to permit the commission to erect a $3 million groin 200 feet out to sea. The groin would rebuild some beach and protect renourishment sand.

State coastal policy discourages groins because, while they collect sand on the upstream wall, they exacerbate erosion on the downstream wall. The league opposes the Folly groin because it could rob sand from the valuable shorebird grounds.

In December, the league said it would take its fight against the permit into court if necessary.

O’Rourke said the park’s remaining high ground would be lost by the time a court battle could be resolved.

Early on in negotiations, commission officials took a position that the league’s concerns were already addressed in the permit application, which among other safeguards sets aside money to remove the groin or repair damage if it seriously impacted the shorebird grounds.

A permit applicant must demonstrate that the groin won’t affect the environment downstream.

The league whittled down its set of concerns to its chief one — assuring that the shorebird grounds would be protected. Its staff asked for an independent arbiter to make that determination and a contingency permit application set up to quickly fix any damage.

The two-page position paper delivered to the league by an attorney for the commission falls back on the commission’s original argument, that the permit application includes alternative means of assuring that the shorebird grounds are protected.

“The (commission) does not feel that the communication with the (league) and its continued demands demonstrate any confidence in the permitting or the resource agencies and reflect a distrust of (the commission),” the paper says in part.

“It’s unfortunate. We all felt we were working on a compromise,” said Katie Zimmerman of the league. “Once again we’re taken aback by the confusion of what’s happening here. Instead of squabbling, we just need to come to an agreement.”

Discussions will continue, both sides said, but the confidence has eroded. Meanwhile, the commission continues to seek the permit and has bid out the project work.

“It appears at this point (an agreement) may not be possible. We’re not sitting down. We’re still moving forward,” O’Rourke said.

“I’m frustrated, but I’m still hopeful,” Zimmerman said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or @bopete on Twitter.