KIAWAH ISLAND — The access road would cross through Beachwalker Park but not ruin it, the developers say. The homes they build on fragile Capt. Sam’s Spit would have risks, but so do other island sites.

That’s what Kiawah Development Partners staffers said while giving The Post and Courier a tour of the property recently. They also provided the first look at a footprint of the development and road.

Staffers said the 50-home development planned on the spit would be made up of “green” houses set back far enough not to disrupt the scenic spit’s wildlife-rich habitat.

Environmentalists and community groups disagree, and have fought the development for more than two years.

The spit is a teardrop of exposed land at the island’s western edge.

Controversy has keyed on an access road to be built to the development. The road will cut across the boardwalk access to acclaimed Beachwalker Park and require a revetment, or a porous stone embankment, along the Kiawah River where the neck is at its narrowest point. The embankment, a sloping wall, is planned along a riverbank stretch that is a rare out-of-water feeding ground for dolphins. The homes will be built across a dune field near the tip of a changeable inlet where the tidal flats are a relatively undisturbed feeding ground for flocks of shorebirds.

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The homes

The original idea on Kiawah was to build beach cottages, said Mark Permar, Kiawah Development Partners land planner, and the developers want to emulate that with the spit homes. The homes would:

Be limited to 4,500 square feet, with a few exceptions allowing 5,000 square feet.

Be limited to 1½ stories.

Have mostly natural landscaping and driveway surfaces such as loose stone that let rain be absorbed in the ground rather than run off with pollutants.

Share a dock and a few beach boardwalks.

Balancing island development with the natural environment has been the philosophy all along, he said.

The road, homes and docks would still be in the line of rising sea levels, shifting sands and storm events, said Kate Zimmerman, of the Coastal Conservation League. They would disrupt the wildlife relying on the spit and as well as the public’s enjoyment of the beach.

The road

KDP staffers said they plan to build the access road between the Beachwalker Park parking and concessions area and the beach itself, where a park boardwalk now crosses a stretch of maritime forest.

The boardwalk’s road crossing would be similar to other crossings throughout the island, and the disruption to the park minimal, Permar said.

But the forest and wildlife such as deer, birds and snakes that are spotted from the boardwalk are part of the park’s appeal and would be lost, said Rich Thomas of the Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands.

The wall

KDP wants to set the embankment along a half-mile of the Kiawah River bank, to shore up the road along the river bank.

While the river side of the spit is eroding, the beach is gaining sand. Because of that, the state in 1999 moved its setback, or “do not build” line, seaward enough to provide room for the road. KDP staffers said that’s what launched development plans.

They acknowledge the risk of erosion or storms damaging or destroying the road or homes. But the narrow neck exposure of the road would be similar to other island road stretches, they said, and other island homes are built in exposed spots.

“How is that different than where I live on the island? We all take some risk,” said Bill Hindman, KDP community relations consultant.

“We know there’s a long-term concern about all these things,” Permar said, but the gaining beach sand has stabilized the neck and spit enough to build on.

But coastal geologist Miles Hayes, who studied the island in 1974 for the original developers and recommended not to build on the spit, said the spit hasn’t stabilized enough. Historically, the spit has built up until erosion or storms cut through the neck, every 40 or 50 years or so, he said. The last cut was in 1949.

The impact

KDP staffers said that homes would be built on only 20 acres of the 150-acre spit and the rest put into conservation easement.

The homes would be built more than 1,000 feet from the inlet sand flats where shorebirds flock. Marsh plants and oyster reefs are expected to grow along the porous embankment.

The riverbank is a strand-feeding ground, opponents said, a place where dolphins drive schools of bait fish onto the beach and jump after them to eat. Dolphin also strand feed along the marsh bank across the river. But they tend to shy from strand feeding when people come too close, and nobody knows what effect the embankment and passing cars might have.

The spit is a relatively young land feature, with few if any mature hardwoods, unlike other parts of the island. KDP staffers said the gain of beach sand indicates the site is established enough for development.