The dispute between those who would build houses on Captain Sam’s Spit and those who would keep that from happening has been festering for four and a half years. It’s been one step forward, one step back. Or one step backward and one step up, depending on your perspective.
The latest step was taken this week by the S.C. Senate. It is a move in the right direction. The question now is whether the House will agree.
For Kiawah Partners, the would-be developer, the financial rewards of winning — and building 50 houses on the 150-acre spit of sandy land — are compelling.
For nature lovers, the rewards of stopping that development are also compelling. Captain Sam’s is a haven for shore birds. Diamondback terrapin turtles nest there, and dolphins drive schools of baitfish onto the beach and launch themselves up after them to feed.
In many communities, the outcome would almost assuredly be tilted in favor of the developer who comes with deep pockets and the promise of jobs and new taxpayers.
The Lowcountry, however, has a proud track record for conservation — the ACE Basin, urban growth barriers, a sales tax devoted to maintaining green space and more.
One significant factor in building on the spit is a state-regulated setback line on the beach defining how close to the ocean something can be built. In the past, it has moved seaward or toward the dunes, depending on whether the beach eroded or accreted.
The state is now moving toward a line that might move dunesward if the beach erodes, but will not be moved seaward. Building where ocean waves are likely to undermine structures is foolish. It is harmful to the ecosystem and interferes with the public’s enjoyment of the beach. It also is expensive, as owners of endangered structures want taxpayers to pick up the tab to protect them from further erosion.
A Senate-approved bill would impose that setback (determined by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control) at the end of 2017. Until then, the present setback line would stand.
Kiawah Partners had hoped that the setback would not be finalized until 2020. If the island were to accrete, that would give the development more room for a road to go from Kiawah’s mainland across a narrow strip of land to the spit.
The Coastal Conservation League would like the line locked in before that to ensure it will never again move seaward, so it sees the bill as a move in the right direction.
The tricky part is that Mother Nature hasn’t announced whether the spit will accrete, erode or stay the same.
And the project is tied up in court as Kiawah Partners seeks permission to sink a wall into the sand to shore up the route for the road.
Common sense certainly suggests that it is unwise to build 50 houses on a volatile spit of land accessible by a road on a precariously narrow strip of land.
Fifty families can find other beautiful places to live.
But as stewards of the Lowcountry’s natural beauty, its beaches and its wildlife, it is important that the community and the state persist in protecting Captain Sam’s Spit.