Lawyer's letter tells agency to go ahead and levy fines

ISLE OF PALMS — A short letter telling regulators to go ahead and levy fines has apparently ended six months of negotiations between Wild Dunes property owners and the state.

Owners were scheduled to meet Thursday with S.C. Ocean and Coastal Resources Management enforcement officers to settle on an enforcement order specifying the amounts of a daily fine for not removing sandbags that girdle six beachfront condominium complexes and two other properties from storm tides. The removal deadline was Nov. 30.

"Please be advised that we do not plan to attend any of these (enforcement) conferences," attorney Cotton Harness III wrote in a letter sent this week to OCRM. "I ask you to provide me with Enforcement Orders, so that I can both appeal the agency's decision and seek a stay of your Order," he wrote. "Our intentions continue to be that we will replace the bags and protect the properties."

Fines would range from $100 to $1,000 per day for each of the properties. Owners will be told the amount they are being fined in the enforcement orders, which OCRM expects to issue after Christmas, said Dan Burger, communications director. Each property will be fined the same amount, he said.

The back-and-forth is the latest exchange between the state and the owners, who say the sandbags are the only thing left between the ocean and their properties on the eroding beach in the gated vacation resort.

The agency refused to extend an emergency order allowing thousands of the bags to stay, saying the bags worsen erosion and an extension would undermine coastal regulations.

Even with the bags in place, storm tides are washing under buildings, damaging utility lines and edging the buildings closer to being condemned. The owners' attorneys have said they will sue the state for $500 million in property value that could be lost.

A court ruling could be decisive in the long-running legal battle over how much the agency can restrict private property along public beaches, an environmental attorney said.

Meanwhile, two state legislators will try to fast-track bills that would allow the city of Isle of Palms to apply for federal money to help pay for a $9 million beach renourishment. They also have approached OCRM about allowing the bags to stay.

"It's difficult for me to support the government telling people to dismantle the only thing separating them from the destruction of their property," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. "I think the removal would be the bigger environmental disaster. You shouldn't have to pull the plug at this point and see the debris from those buildings strewn up and down the South Carolina coast."

"I don't believe sandbags are the right long-term solution but are the interim solution," said Rep. Ben Hagood, R-Sullivan's Island. "I believe OCRM understands that, but they are looking for a long-term solution as quickly as possible."

Reach Bo Petersen at 745-5852 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.