State takes new tack on Capt. Sam’s development permits

State regulators have changed course on permitting for a controversial development on Capt. Sam’s Spit along the Kiawah River on the west end of Kiawah Island.

KIAWAH ISLAND — State regulators have rescinded their approval of a permit that would have allowed a controversial wall on Capt. Sam’s Spit. Instead they have approved a group of permits that could speed up development there.

The change came after environmental opponents requested the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board to deny the earlier wall permit. Staff approved a set of permits, including the wall, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure construction, allowing the environmental impact of each to be considered together.

It also means opponents wouldn’t be able to draw out a legal battle permit by permit. The opponents say they will request the board deny these permits, too. An appeal to the board is a required first step to a potential legal challenge.

The objection is the same, said Amy Armstrong of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

“If there’s already been a final agency decision, you can’t arrive at a different conclusion. We shouldn’t be here having to argue this, but obviously there’s a lot of money at stake,” she said.

“DHEC corrected the previous approval to match plans they approved,” said Bill Hindman, spokesman for Kiawah Partners, the developer.

The Charlotte-based Kiawah Partners is proposing to build 50 homes on high ground of Captain Sam’s Spit, a wildlife-rich, 150-acre sand strip along Captain Sam’s Inlet between Kiawah and Seabrook islands. Like other inlet areas, it is continually reshaped by waves and wind.

The developers have said the homes and infrastructure can be built without significantly disrupting the environment.

Among the other infrastructure, the company is seeking a wall to hold up an access road across the narrow neck of the spit. Environmentalists and community groups have fought for four years to stop the project, and last year won a state Supreme Court decision to stop an earlier wall.

The company now is asking the state to approve construction of a sheet pile wall nearly a half-mile long that will hold up the road. The earlier permit would have allowed a seawall and porous bulwark, or revetment, to support the road.

A sheet pile wall is a hardened structure, often metal or wood, driven in the ground for support. It would differ from the revetment in that it would be built higher in the dunes, outside the riverbank’s “critical area” where the revetment was proposed. The legal fight over the revetment centered on a critical-area permit. Those areas are coastal waters, tidelands and beach/dune systems under state jurisdiction.

The new wall, opponents argue, is “a distinction without a difference.”

The spit is prized for conservation and recreation because its cape beach is a feeding ground that, at times, draws seabirds by the thousands. Its inlet beaches are part of a rare strand-feeding ground, where dolphins drive schools of bait fish onto the beach and jump up after them to feed.

The spit was left undeveloped while most of the rest of the island was built on, and is now one of few undeveloped barrier island spits the public has ready access to because of the adjacent Beachwalker Park.

For Kiawah Partners, the spit is one of the few remaining undeveloped beachfront properties left on the largely gated resort island. Company representatives have said building would take place along only 20 acres, and 85 percent of the spit is to be put under conservation easement.

The current plan would not impact the park, but the developers have talked with Tom O’Rourke, Charleston County Park and Recreation director, about moving the park to an adjoining site to clear a route to the spit, O’Rourke said.

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