DeBordieu Colony, a wealthy, gated beach community, was the benefactor of targeted legislation in the Statehouse this week that would protect a stretch of beachfront houses.
That's if Gov. Henry McMaster signs it into law.
Lawmakers adopted a bill in the final week of the 2019 session that would allow the tony retreat to rebuild a seawall constructed before South Carolina banned them.
The exemption was added to a pre-existing bill and approved in the course of a single day. It signals a worrisome possibility of increased beachfront armoring along the coast as sea levels continue to rise, environmental advocates said.
Representatives of DeBordieu, in Georgetown County, say the exposed timber bulkhead that's protecting about 17 beachfront buildings could rupture in the next severe storm. The community has worked for years to fend off environmental challenges to rebuilding the barrier.
Environmentalists, however, argue that state beachfront rules need to be applied uniformly, or every community with an eroding beach will ask for an exception. Sea walls are banned because hard structures on beaches make erosion worse when waves ricochet off them.
"If this is the way that we’re headed in terms of beachfront management and the policy we’re going to have in response to sea level rise, if the answer is we’re going to harden our shorelines and put sea walls on them ... we’re going to have zero public beach," said Amy Armstrong, of the S.C. Environmental Law Project.
It's unclear how McMaster will respond to the bill. A spokesman said only that "the governor’s office will be closely reviewing the last-minute changes made to this legislation."
Blanche Brown, general manager of the DeBordieu Colony homeowner association, said the community pays for beach work like the replacement seawall or sand renourishment with private funds.
"People have said, 'Just retreat, move those houses.' There’s no place to move some of those houses," Brown said. "There's roads and houses behind those houses."
The entire South Carolina coast faces a very high risk of erosion in the next decade, according to a recent study. That work found that nesting birds and turtles throughout the Southeast coast face dire consequences, but that erosion also means the ocean will start encroaching on more and more homes.
Already, in places like Harbor Island in Beaufort County, property owners are trying to get the state to remove houses that are falling into the sea.
The state's answers to questions about what to do when the ocean rises are found mostly within its Beachfront Management Act. Almost since the moment the act was signed into law, wealthy property owners have worked to circumvent it, however. McMaster also signed a bill last year that removed the word "retreat" from the act, transforming the state's long-held policy position that coastal denizens might one day have to migrate.
DeBordieu Colony has gotten exceptions passed before in the form of budget provisos that allowed state regulators to issue them permits for a sea wall replacement. Those efforts were challenged by environmentalists, however.
Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, introduced the DeBordieu carve-out as an amendment this week to a bill allowing property owners to build "wing walls," or attachments to existing seawalls that would stop the ocean from spilling around the sides and behind the barriers. The state has banned new sea walls since 1988, but several were built before then and still stand.
"There was an agreement among the environmental community and those seeking the (wing) walls, and we understood and knew that was coming," Armstrong said. "It was a pill we didn’t really want to swallow, but we did."
The final bill passed unanimously through the House the same day Hiott's amendment was added. Also on Wednesday, 34 members in the Senate passed the final legislation, with eight senators voting no, abstaining or marking themselves present.
Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said the result, if signed into law, would be poor policy.
The exception, as written, doesn't even require the homeowners to get a permit from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for the work.
"The right way to handle it is to make good rules for the whole state that the executive branch interprets," Young said. "That’s how it’s supposed to work."
Brown said the Legislature did a good job of balancing individual interests with broader state law. She added that there's an interest in protecting the homes because DeBordieu is a crucial portion of Georgetown County's tax base.
But Young, who sat on the committee that developed the state's beach rules, countered that only a few homes would be in immediate danger if the wall broke.
The resulting exception will loom large into the future, he said.
"Every issue that we have today and every erosion hot spot that we have today is only going to get worse in the future, not better," he said.