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Five homeowners on Hilton Head Island are constructing a sea wall in front of their homes, but other neighbors are worried it could lead to accelerated erosion nearby. Provided/Coastal Conservation League

The first new sea wall in 30 years is being finished on Hilton Head Island. Almost 300 other properties on the island might be able to use the same regulatory loophole to build their own.

As the sea level continues to rise, imperiling more homes and pushing property owners to attempt extreme measures, will regulators be able to keep up?

Rob Young, a researcher at Western Carolina University, concluded the owners of 292 beachfront Hilton Head properties might be able to build new sea walls after an analysis of the state boundaries that restrict beachfront development.

The wall being built by five adjacent property owners on Piping Plover Road is technically behind the state's lines and out of reach of the town, even though the area has been washed over in the past couple of serious storms.

"The sea wall that’s going in in Hilton Head is a huge concern," Young said. "I think everybody that’s in the state of South Carolina should be worried about it."

Young's estimation might be overblown, according to Scott Liggett, chief engineer with the town of Hilton Head. He said local officials have their own boundaries that are even more restrictive than the state's lines in some spots. ​

The battle between deep-pocketed beachfront property owners and environmental regulators has followed a similar cycle for decades, with land owners searching for loopholes in order to circumvent beachfront regulations. Erica Knight, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which is tasked in part with regulating the shoreline, said in an email that "the department will continue to comply with the laws and regulations it is mandated to enforce."

New sea walls are usually prohibited on the beach because of their effect on adjacent areas, exacerbating erosion nearby, even as they retain some sand in front of the properties they protect. 

"We’re at a really critical juncture in this state," said Amy Armstrong, executive director of the Georgetown-based S.C. Environmental Law Project. "It’s private property versus the public beach. Do we sacrifice the public beach for the people that are able to have houses on the beachfront?"

Gradual erosion

Almost since the moment state's Beachfront Management Act was enacted in 1988, it's been chipped away at. 

In 1992, an Isle of Palms property owner convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that because the act stopped him from erecting homes on his beachfront land, the state had effectively taken his property through regulation. The case set important precedents for how governments interact with private landowners across the country. 

Several amendments and revisions to law since then have removed other protective measures, like an amendment earlier this year that did away with the regulatory mandate of beach retreat, or the gradual moving of buildings back from the shoreline. The act's ban on new sea walls is still in place today, but there's been multiple attempts to roll back that rule, too. 

On Debidue Island, a group of homeowners have waged a years-long fight to reconstruct a timber bulkhead that predates the ban. The effort involved hiring a lobbyist to advocate for homeowners in DeBourdieu Colony, the wealthy, gated community on the island. 

That effort resulted in a budget proviso that allowed DHEC to issue a permit for a new sea wall 2 feet in front of the one that has been there for decades. 

The permit set off a legal challenge from both Armstong's group and the Coastal Conservation League. All the parties settled this month, with DHEC deciding to rescind the permit and environmentalists dropping their legal challenge. 

The entire timber bulkhead was built decades ago and is largely hidden under sand. But the southern 1,800 feet or so is consistently exposed. Viewed from above, the point where the wall stops looks like an abrupt stair step in the shoreline, with the beach immediately south several feet inland of the walled area. 

Mary Shahid, the attorney who represented the beachfront homeowners, said the existing wall is long past its intended life and that contractors would not have been able to rebuild it in the same spot.

But now, the more than 20 homeowners who had worked to move the wall into the sea will focus on the island's other attempts to stem erosion, Shahid said. Debidue residents pay for privately funded renourishment, and are currently seeking approval for another round of that work and a set of new groins on the island.

"They just really wanted to pull back and see if there was any other way to go at this," Shahid said. 

Special exceptions

In a few places in South Carolina, the rules against hard structures don't apply. 

On the northeast end of Folly Beach, an exemption from state law allows construction on the "super beach," in dunes that tend to be over-washed by storm tide during the years between renourishments.

These new homes must be built with sea walls to protect their septic fields. Each wall built worsens erosion for beaches to its southwest, or downstream of the longshore current that erodes, carries and deposits sand. Each wall forces owners downstream to build their own wall.

Today, wooden barricades and rock revetments stand along most homes on that end of the beach. The beach also is undergoing its second renourishment in the past three years.

“Sooner or later we won’t have a beach on the east end of the island. It will be a walled city,” said Matt Napier, of the Save Folly Beach resident group. Napier owns beachfront property on the northeast end that is not protected by a wall but surrounded by properties that are.

Some of the walls predate the state ban on the structures. Folly has the remnants of a rock wall in the dunes between homes and the ocean surf.

The Folly revetment also went up after the island developed. Erosion on Folly has been exacerbated by the Charleston shipping channel jetties, which were built in the late 1800s. They block that longshore flow of sand.

Folly leaders built the town’s wall in the 1950s using concrete from the old Johns Island airport, said Mayor Tim Goodwin. The town also once had a long wooden wall protecting what is now the pier area beach in its commercial center. People would fish from it at high tide, Goodwin said.

Folly leaders have passed a beach building moratorium to give planners a chance to recommend new rules governing building in the dunes. But banning sea walls isn’t likely to be part of that rework.

“We more than anyone understand the (erosional) impact of hard structures,” said Town Administrator Spencer Wetmore. “But we have to protect ourselves.”

Stemming the tide

Over the next 80 years, global mean sea levels could rise from 1 to 8 feet, according to a range of possibilities published last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Those projections mean many more homes in coastal South Carolina could be regularly imperiled by rising water, and the beach — the primary driver of the state's lucrative tourism industry, will be caught between coastal development and the sea. 

All the while, environmentalists worry that DHEC's hands are essentially tied.

"The General Assembly holds the purse strings," Armstrong said. "What we see happening is when there's a decision that’s made that's protective of resources, then somebody's going in and lobbying the legislature to go in and limit those protections."

Shahid disagreed with that characterization. 

"There’s a lot of interests to balance," she said. "To say that DHEC has been beat up or weakened is really not very accurate at all. It's just balance of power."

Young argued that DHEC could have stepped in during the Hilton Head case, arguing that the land that now has a wall should be considered active beach because of how frequently it's been washed over. Assuming water won't reach the affected houses again is unrealistic, he said.

Knight, of the agency, responded that beachfront managers did not have the ability to regulate development landward of their jurisdiction lines.

A new set of lines proposed last year would have pre-empted the wall, but they were scrapped by state lawmakers after alarm from property owners. DHEC has until 2024 to draw them again. 

Since the state's oceanfront regulations were implemented in the '80s, Young said, "We have a new set of lawmakers, a new set of property owners, and a new set of problems, and we haven’t been dealing with it all very well, I think."

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

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