In an unusual arrangement, five adjacent homeowners on the beach in Hilton Head Island have pooled their resources to build a continuous sea wall in front of their homes. 

Development on the beach is highly regulated in South Carolina. But the strip of sand where the wall is being constructed is in a regulatory gray zone, out of reach for both the town of Hilton Head and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

"We talked to every organization that had anything to do with the beach to get their approval and input," said Bert Ellis, who owns one of the homes on Piping Plover Road that will be behind the wall. "Everybody has signed off on what we’re doing."

Two storms in the space of about a year — Category 1 Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and Tropical Storm Irma in September 2017 — eroded the beach so severely in front of the five homes in the Sea Pines community that the walls of their oceanside pools were entirely exposed, Ellis said. He argued that constructing the 18-foot-deep wall wouldn't be any more disruptive than the existing pools. 

The town replaced sand and dunes in front of the homes after Matthew, Ellis said, but Irma "just scraped that away like a knife through butter."

The wall will be covered with sand when it's completed in a few weeks, with planting on top. But hard structures on the beach are often associated with increased erosion nearby, and it's an open question who would re-cover the wall if a serious storm strikes again and strips the sand away. 

Sea Pines resident Dana Advocaat said she worries that if the wall is uprooted in a serious storm, it could block a road or damage property. She also said that if the town renourishes the sand on top of the wall after a hurricane, it could amount to special treatment for the property owners who decided to take on the project of their own accord.

“It’s our tax dollars,” she said. 

Typically, renourishment workers only move sand up to the edge of a hard surface, and not over it, said Bill Eiser, a former DHEC employee and owner of Eiser Consulting. 

“They're trying to rebuild a beach the public can use, and if you’re putting sand behind or on the landward side of a wall, that’s typically not any section the public can get to, recreationally,” Eiser said.

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Tropical Storm Irma eroded the beach in front of Bert Ellis' Hilton Head home so severely that it exposed the outer wall of his pool. Ellis and four of his neighbors are building a sea wall to protect their homes, but neighbors are concerned the wall could make erosion worse elsewhere. Provided / Bert Ellis

The past few years have been busy for beach restoration work along South Carolina's shore. The north and south extremes of the Grand Strand have had emergency work completed in the past year. Isle of Palm's most recent project finished in March, and another project is under way now on Folly Beach.

This week, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would start work on the central section of renourishment on the Grand Strand in August. The stretch of beach is the last in that region to be renourished, and includes the entire shoreline of Myrtle Beach. 

In Hilton Head, Ellis said the property owners behind the wall don't expect special treatment if the wall is uncovered, though he did say that the town has expressed that it's committed to continuing to renourish the beach.

"Everything we’re doing is with our own nickel. We’re not asking anybody to subsidize this. We’re not asking anybody to push sand if they’re not going to push sand," Ellis said. 

Still, the private work could impact the public section of the beach. Scott Liggett, with the town of Hilton Head, said he was "absolutely" concerned the wall could exacerbate erosion on its beachward side. He also said that while sand around the property owners' pools may have been eroded in the past, the effects of pools are not the same as an engineered sea wall. 

"While (sea walls) tend to hold firm and protect the private property behind them, no sea wall has ever been built to protect the beach in front of them,” Liggett said.

Emily Cedzo, with the Coastal Conservation League, worried that other property owners on Hilton Head might see the wall as an example and try to find the same loophole as the group on Piping Plover Road: building in an area that's not regulated by a public authority. DHEC generally does not allow hard structures on the part of the beach that it regulates. 

"It perpetuates a false sense of security, and once that starts, where and how do we stop it?" Cedzo said.

Liggett said several factors combined to motivate the wall near Piping Plover Road: two storms within a year that hit that section of the island particularly hard, a group of property owners who were willing to work together and the fact that the dunes that were there were removed, exposing the sand underneath for construction.

“I don't think it's common or likely” that more residents would start erecting similar walls, he said. 

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