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As SC island homes fall into ocean, owners behind them wonder if they're next

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  • 7 min to read

HARBOR ISLAND — This small slip of land on the eastern tip of Beaufort County is the legacy of an opportunistic time when a wave of businessmen descended on the South Carolina coast keen-eyed for fragments of paradise to package and sell off to the tennis-and-golf set.

Brightly colored beach houses with white-lattice skirts were erected, a beige complex of condos sprouted, marsh canals were dredged, and a causeway on and off the island took hold. 

It amounts to a pretty picture today — if you ignore the five houses falling into the ocean.

Wracked by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which sent 100-plus-mph winds hurtling onto the beach, the damage that's been unrepaired for years on the handful of homes is still apparent: supporting columns have begun to bend; stairways leading to entrances twisted; wiring hangs down like loose locks of hair, swaying in the wind.  

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A condemned Harbor Island house illustrates the danger building too close to the ocean. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Their owners are locked in legal battles, both with their insurance companies and the island's Owners' Association, which says the houses need to be removed. Beaufort County declared it's unsafe to be inside any of them. Many on the island are hesitant to discuss them at all so as not to upset friends in the private vacation destination's small community of year-round residents.

One couple showed up twice last year and stayed inside their crumbling vacation home, two neighbors said. The couple was able to turn the lights on in the house, despite the fact that it's surrounded by rising tides twice a day. The power has since been shut off, but a Dominion Energy spokesman would not clarify when. 

For the owners who live directly adjacent to the damaged houses, they're both an eyesore and a peek into the eroding future coming their way as the island faces climate change-driven sea level rise and intensifying storms. The scene here could one day spread to other places on South Carolina's coast, as well, as beach-building projects to hold back the rising water become more expensive. 

One Harbor Island homeowner said she hoped a home she bought in September would still be there in 10 years. Another who was able to tear down his damaged vacation home wondered why it was built in the first place.

"It's not like the people that built the house put it up there without everybody approving it along the way," said Michael Ricci, who demolished his front-row beach home in 2018.   

High-tide waters sweep under houses along the coast of Harbor Island, which were damaged during Hurricane Matthew and deemed unsafe to live in by Beaufort County.

Creating a resort

Harbor Island, marked by a wedge of highland on its northeast end and acres of marsh sprawling south, is open to tropical cyclones on the precipice of the Southeast Atlantic coast. It's also situated at the mouth of an estuary, where emptying rivers and the tidal pull of the ocean combine to reshape islands in unpredictable ways.

In some sections, most dramatically the southern tip called Pelican Point, sand is accreting. But in much of the central section of beach it is rapidly disappearing.

To walk the portion where erosion is ongoing is a study in contrasts: while well-appointed vacation and retirement homes that can command $500,000 or more sit just a row back, crumbling edifices in front have been abandoned.

In the places where Beaufort County has condemned homes, storm surge ripped up concrete pad foundations. At high tide, when water rushes under the houses, beachwalkers trying to make their way through have to jump from one cracked cement slab to the next, or even weave under the houses themselves, where exposed silver HVAC innards fall from the structure's torn underbellies.


Water rushes in towards uninhabited homes along the coast of Harbor Island on Friday, January 17, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

It's a far cry from the late 1960s, when Davis Heniford Jr. bought the island.

A Loris gas salesman-turned-resort developer, Heniford would pilot his small, private plane to the island, his daughter, Holly Heniford, said. She remembered a still-wild place and a beach littered with huge horseshoe crabs.

Holly Heniford said her late father made a joke of the fact that he had bought an island superior to one nearby owned by famed conservationist Ted Turner, which was rumored to flood.

By this time, a popular model of pre-planned and gated communities on sea islands was starting to expand, with Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island established and Kuwaiti developers buying Kiawah Island for a gated golf community in 1974. 

That same year, Davis Heniford was caught by federal authorities illegally dredging several "finger canals" in Harbor Island's marsh, which are still there today. 

The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism tried to buy the island, but by 1979 funding fell through, according to a News and Courier article at the time. Eventually, Davis Heniford sold the island for $3.5 million to a new developer, and homes were added in several phases.

A 1984 ad for the resort in The News and Courier shows a far-off shot of the beach, with the viewer situated behind a thick line of sand dunes and sea oats. In many places on the island today those dunes are gone. 

"Here a masterful combination of beach, pool and nearby golf and tennis come together with privacy and beauty to create something truly special," the ad read.

"The views are joyous. The architecture a delight." 

'The next 10 years'

These days, Connie Scher's view is anything but joyous. 

In front of her dark green house with bright white trim is one of the abandoned homes, a weathered salmon pink. Its sliding doors have been open since Matthew blew through three and a half years ago. Scher said she can smell the mold growing inside.

Scher and her husband, coming from a suburb of Charlotte, were assured when they were shown their home in a viewing in March 2019 that the damaged houses would quickly be removed. She's now convinced that the showing was scheduled at low tide because water was hundreds of yards away from her front-row neighbor. 

At high tide, salt water laps against an exposed seawall at the front of her house. When she moved in, a mound of sand covered the ocean-facing side of the wall. It's since eroded, exposing chunks of broken concrete from the damaged houses that the previous owner piled there as a makeshift bolster to their barrier. 

She knows that the ocean will someday overtake her property. Other property owners on the island seem less aware of the danger, she said.

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"The glaciers are melting and everything, so it’s going to happen," Scher said. "I just didn’t want it to happen in the next 10 years."

Maybe, she added after some thought, counting on five years would be a safer bet.

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Connie Scher stands outside of her home on Harbor Island on Friday, January 17, 2020. Scher, who bought the house last year, said she didn't realize how close the water was to her house when she saw it as a prospective buyer because the showing was at low tide. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Steve and Maria Cone live across a beach path from Scher, also in the second row. Maria in particular wanted to live close to the beach, and the couple both love the beauty.

High tide usually stays about 6 feet from their fence. For now, they're not as concerned about the long-term threat of sea level rise. By the time the gradually increasing threat becomes a pressing, everyday problem, the couple, now in their 70s, figures they could be long gone.

The more immediate problem could be the elevated house's many steps as they age and become less mobile. 


Stephen Cone of Harbor Island talks about neighboring properties which can't be inhabited because the sand under them has eroded. Lauren Petracca/Staff

But they know the risks of coastal property. When Matthew caused an estimated $144,000 in damage to their house, high deductibles meant they got back an insurance check for just $54.

If the damaged yellow house in front of them were removed, the opportunity to sell a now front-row house might prove tempting. 

"I mentioned to Steve, 'Oh, I never want to leave, I never want to leave,' " Maria Cone said. "Because of mother nature, I've had second thoughts about it."

Casting blame

Erosion issues in the center of the island had become apparent even before Matthew struck a significant blow in 2016. It had been a point of concern to beachfront owners for years, but in 2011, 86 percent of property owners voted against embarking on renourishment, which sucks sand off the ocean floor and deposits it back on a beach. 

Jeff Levy, president of the Owner's Association board, said a vote hasn't been conducted since then because of ongoing litigation, and that the board has questioned whether it would be worth it. The island's property covenants also prohibit any work on private property, like piling sand onto private lots. 

"You get into all kinds of conceptual problems as to are you benefiting the community as a whole or are you benefiting just a limited subset of owners?" Levy said.

Normally, beach communities get federal dollars for such work, but Beaufort County won't help the island apply unless they open up access to more of the public.

Owners of eroding and damaged properties now cast blame in all directions: at the state, at the Owner's Association and, most of all, at beach-rebuilding projects on nearby Hunting Island, a state park. 

Ricci remains frustrated that so many houses were built on such vulnerable land. His house, which was round and had floor-to-ceiling views of the water, had several walls ripped out by the storm. A bed was left hanging out of one side of the structure. 

He sold his lot officially to the Owner's Association. If sand ever starts accreting on his former land again, which Ricci acknowledged was a longshot, he has an option to re-buy it.

"I'm old enough to know that sometimes things surprise you," he said. "So I’d rather have the option than not have the option.”

Tricia Gardner, who used to own a house next to Ricci, said she was told by state environmental regulators that erosion issues would not be a problem on her lot, but that was before the work at the state park. A spokesperson for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said current staff did not recall this interaction.

After Gardner's home was storm-damaged, she sold her lot to the owner behind her, who tore it down. She now lives on nearby Dataw Island. 

Falling beach houses (copy)

Michael Ricci's beachfront house on Harbor Island had several walls ripped out by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and further damaged by Tropical Storm Irma a year later. It was demolished in April 2018. File/Don Woelke/Provided

Waiting for water

Gardner and Ricci are two of many who are convinced the Hunting Island projects made things worse. But litigation stretching back years and limited data collection by the state have not been able to definitively prove what has driven the erosion so far.

"I thought it was difficult, if not impossible, to prove from a scientific perspective" a connection between the state park's work and Harbor Island's erosion, said Rob Young, who studies developed shorelines at Western Carolina University. 

What is clear is that in the central portion of the island, sand continues to disappear. As sea levels inch upward, homes are in the way. Young said that islanders need to consider a way to move the houses away from the beach. 

That's happened once already. The owners of one relocated house had to pay to remove and then replace fences, mailboxes and street signs along a narrow island road as their vacation house was moved. Another house, one of the five that have sat empty since Matthew, is also slated for relocation. 

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Houses sit along a marsh on Harbor Island on Friday, January 17, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

But some, including Scher, sit in a purgatory: not yet facing the brunt of the ocean but watching the water creep closer.

If the confidence of insurance carriers is any indication, Scher's in a bad spot: she's on her third policy after two companies dropped the property, and received a recent mailing with a page of all-caps legalese on what would and wouldn't be paid for. 

She's taken this from the communication: "If we have a hurricane, I’m screwed."

These days, she's resigned to enjoy her house while she can. She and her husband are still planning to make it their primary residence after their Charlotte home is sold. 

Worrying constantly would just make her miserable. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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