The dispute comes down to whether a "wing wall" is a wing or a wall.

Two bills in the S.C. Legislature — one in the House and one in the Senate — deal with restoring state permits for the devices, which beachfront owners claim are needed to protect their properties and conservationists fear would weaken the state's ban against new sea walls.

A House subcommittee bill was moved to full committee Tuesday as legislators from both parties agreed to work out a compromise.

The devices are flanks of sea walls built like wings off an end to keep high surf from eroding behind the wall and undermining it. So if the neighbor living at the end of the wall doesn't make repairs sooner or later their portion of the wall could give way, too.

"Right now you can't rebuild your sea wall," said state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. "If your neighbor doesn't keep up his end, your wall is in danger, as well. What's more American than being able to protect your property?"

Conservationists have two levels of concern. The bills don't specify the direction or the length of the wings — that's left to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control permitters. So conceivably, a "wing" could be stretched to act more as a wall than a flank.

"Wing walls are not defined anywhere and there are no limitations on the length, angle, size or any other dimension of these structures," said attorney Amy Armstrong of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

That would create an exemption to the current Coastal Zone Management Act prohibition on seawalls, she said.

"If passed, this would be the first time that the Coastal Zone Management Act’s prohibition on new seawalls is weakened, allowing people to bolster and build onto existing walls without any limitations," Armstrong said.

Goldfinch doesn't agree.

"I don't think anybody is attempting to do that and I don't think DHEC would permit it," Goldfinch said. "The notion that you could subvert the entire regulation by installing a wing wall is a little laughable."

Wing walls previously were permitted, but regulators in recent years have denied them.

The sea wall ban has been challenged multiple times by coastal landowners who look to engineering to protect their property.  For example, five adjacent homeowners on Hilton Head Island constructed a contiguous sea wall on the south side of the island last year, situating it in a regulatory gray zone out of reach of both the town and the state's jurisdiction.

Elsewhere, a battery of storms and erosion have been uncovering long-buried sea walls that were installed before the state ban. Walls have been uncovered recently in Garden City Beach, one of the most vulnerable areas of the Grand Strand, Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, said.

Hewitt filed the state House's version of the wing wall bill, along with Rep. William Bailey, R-Little River. 

"There's some growing undercurrent about people worried about their neighbors (maintaining the walls)," Hewitt said. 

One site that has been subject to a recent fight over an existing sea wall is DeBordieu Colony, a gated community on Debidue Island just north of Winyah Bay.

Residents there have fought to rebuild an existing timber bulkhead that is uncovered for about 1,900 feet on its southern end. Hurricanes and Nor'easter winter storms push waves that regularly undermine the edges of that barrier.

They fought hard for it, hiring a lobbyist who helped inset a budget proviso into the state budget to allow for rebuilding, but that was challenged by the law project environmental group.

The case was settled last year, and residents dropped the attempt to rebuild for the moment. They recently won DHEC permits to renourish the beach with up to 650,000 cubic yards of sand dredged offshore, and build three groins to help preserve that sand. Groins are barriers set from the dunes to the tide to keep sand from being washed or blown away.

Blanche Brown, the colony general manager, said both the groins and wing walls are important to lengthen the time between expensive beach renourishments needed to keep from losing those homes, even though neither is an ideal solution.

"Ideally it would be nice, since the bulkhead was in place before the sea wall ban, if the bulkhead could be grandfathered and a breached portion could be replaced," she said.

Wing walls and groins can be harmful for the same reason, said Emily Cedzo, land, water and wildlife program director for the Coastal Conservation League.

"Groins also pose erosional impacts to adjacent properties. Anytime you put a hard structure on a beach, it’s going to change the dynamics of that particular area," she said.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.