A private island community in Beaufort County is suing the state over beach regulations — but in a twist, a homeowners association isn't trying to circumvent the rules, but rather get the state's help in removing six homes.
For decades, beachfront property owners up and down the coast have been in a tug of war with South Carolina, battling with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control over beachfront building regulations that can curb private property rights in the name of protecting the beach, which is a public resource.
But on Harbor Island, a gated community just north of Hunting Island, the shore has been so eroded by recent storms that some homes are now on "active beach," or the part that is technically public land. Some of the homeowners are still engaged in fights with their insurance companies. A few have already demolished their houses or moved them to different lots.
A lawsuit filed Thursday argues it's the state's responsibility to deal with six of the homes, which have become a hazard.
"The public’s right to access and use of the beach means nothing if the State allows that beach to be cluttered with abandoned beach houses," the suit states.
Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the S.C. Attorney General's Office, which defends the state in lawsuits, said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Amy Armstrong, of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, is representing the homeowners group. She said the case has the potential to set important precedent, because the state has never before been forced to deal with homes on active beach.
In North Carolina, which similarly views its beach as a public trust, a court ruling has determined that the state has the authority to tear down homes on active beach. South Carolina has not yet had the same legal determination, Armstrong said.
"We see this as important because we know that the ocean level is rising, we see structures becoming more and more threatened," Armstrong said. "We’re at a critical juncture in this state. What are we going to do going forward when these houses are on active beach?"
The Environmental Law Project asked the Attorney General's office to apply a law that's typically used to tear down abandoned river shacks and houseboats, arguing that it should also apply the the homes on the beach on Harbor Island. The office declined to act on the matter.
"We looked at the situation, looked at the law, which we always do, and determined we couldn't take action," Kittle said.
In many places, costly renourishment programs have helped to keep enough sand in front of the most vulnerable homes to keep them mostly dry.
But because Harbor Island is gated, it has not been eligible for public money to put sand back on the beachfront. State or federally funded renourishment is only performed in places where the public has access to the sand.
Don Woelke, the homeowner association's manager, said some owners of the most vulnerable homes have moved the structures off the beach, and said the community hopes that the state could help move other houses.
Other owners have been locked in battles with their insurance companies since Hurricane Matthew and then Tropical Storm Irma over the past two years eroded the beach so far that water began washing under the raised homes.
"We understand those things do take time," Woelke said, "but now it's become a matter of hazard. Debris falls from the homes on a daily basis."
The houses, which are raised on pilings, have been damaged enough that the stairways to their entrances are ripped away. Some have broken windows. One has an air-conditioning unit dangling out a window, connected to the structure only by its electrical wiring, Woelke said.
Absent the ability to shoot sand back on the beach, a few homeowners attempted to protect the houses with buffers or plastic wave dissipation systems, none of which have worked so far. One homeowner had tried to protect it by building up sand and gravel around it, Woelke said, but the abnormally high tides last weekend washed away much of that buffer.
"I think the writing's on the wall that we can't stop the ocean," Armstrong said.