Environmental groups haven't given up the fight against South Carolina's first new sea wall in 30 years.
On Friday, the S.C. Environmental Law Project sent a letter to state regulators, asking them to immediately halt work on a sea wall that's being constructed on the south end of Hilton Head Island. The Coastal Conservation League is also behind the challenge.
Environmentalists argue that the sea wall, being constructed on the beach in front of the Sea Pines development, needs two different types of permits from the state. Michael Corley, a staff attorney for SCELP, writes that a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the homeowners did not file documentation for or receive the permits.
The letter indicates that the conservation groups could file a lawsuit if work is not halted. The letter says that the groups would not start legal proceedings for at least three weeks.
"I think the intent is to avoid a lawsuit," Corley told The Post and Courier. "We’re hopeful that this is just a matter of miscommunication or it's some issue that can be resolved. Our intent in writing a letter is not to say 'Hey, we’re suing you,' it’s to say, 'Hey, you missed this.'"
Tommy Crosby, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said that the agency is reviewing the letter.
The 18-foot-deep wall in front of five homes on Piping Plover Road is the first new sea wall built in South Carolina in decades. The state banned such walls on the beach in the 1980s, although several parts of the coast already had them. Generally, sea walls retain sand on their landward side but exacerbate erosion on their seaward side, disrupting the natural slope of the beach.
The wall has not been challenged by state officials so far because it is in a regulatory gray zone, landward of DHEC's jurisdictional lines that restrict coastline building and out of reach of the town of Hilton Head's jurisdiction.
As the sea level continues to rise, imperiling more beach homes and pushing property owners to attempt extreme measures, will South Carolina regulators be able to keep up?
Bert Ellis, one of the homeowners who pooled money to build the wall, said construction should be done next week. He declined to comment on the letter.
However, he told The Post and Courier in June that all applicable authorities, including DHEC's Ocean and Coastal Resource Management office, had given the property owners the go-ahead for the wall.
“Everybody has signed off on what we’re doing," Ellis said then.
Property owners also have argued that because they have oceanfront pools in front of their homes, they already in effect had miniature sea walls on their property.
The stakes here could go far beyond Piping Plover Road: About 300 other properties on Hilton Head might be able to use the same loophole to build their own seawalls, according to Rob Young, who researches developed shorelines at Western Carolina University.
Hilton Head officials have doubted that estimate, however, arguing that the town's own building restrictions would preclude that in some places, and that it's unlikely that groups of homeowners would band together in the same way the people at Piping Plover have.