A bill that would allow DeBordieu Colony to rebuild its sea wall could erode the state’s beachfront management policy if Gov. Henry McMaster signs it into law.
The bill would put to rest a longstanding legal issue at no cost to taxpayers, but it also would set a precedent that opens a door for similar exemptions. That makes the cost too high.
About 10 beachfront homes are in danger of slumping into the ocean if a roughly 4,000-foot sea wall first built in the early 1980s isn’t repaired. But if DeBordieu property owners are allowed to rebuild, what’s to stop other communities from demanding the same treatment? All of which goes against beachfront management laws that forbid hard structures on beaches.
Odd things happen in the final days of a legislative session. A last-minute amendment to a less controversial bill that enabled property owners to repair “wing walls” — angled structures at the ends of sea walls meant to stop the surf from causing erosion behind them — paved the way for the Senate to approve the measure.
Before the vote last week, Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, as much as admitted the bill was a stinker. A noticeable number of lawmakers abstained from voting.
Sen. Goldfinch said he knew environmental groups such as the Coastal Conservation League would oppose it, but that he felt a duty to side with his constituents whose properties were threatened. The upscale, gated community contributes mightily to the area’s property tax revenues, accounting for up to 20 percent of Georgetown County’s take, he said.
“I disagree with how we got here,” he said, “but we would not be in this position had we not dealt with year after year of protracted litigation over this issue. They would have rebuilt it, and we’d be done with it.”
The DeBordieu sea wall (as well as some groins) is part of a longstanding struggle that has spawned numerous lawsuits. Previously, lawmakers have tried to exempt DeBordieu from state law via budget provisos — a route that rightly led to litigation but no resolution over the sea wall.
But now it looks like the island community is in the clear as long as the governor signs off. That has some beach preservation advocates furious, fearful the exemption will set a precedent for undermining beachfront management law, which just last year underwent a subtle but important shift in language from “retreat” to “beach preservation.”
Well-established arguments against sea walls are pretty clear: They’re ineffective over the long run, worsen erosion adjacent to them and, once high tide is lapping at a sea wall, the natural beach is mostly gone, and that interrupts everything from public recreation to sea turtle reproduction.
As one beachfront management expert put it: “You can’t manage the coast one parcel at a time.” Environmental groups are especially frustrated because they helped shape state law to anticipate and prevent such exemptions. And in the case of DeBordieu, the bill is seen as legislative overreach because it exempts the sea wall from permits that would otherwise be needed.
The bill puts Gov. McMaster in an unenviable position, but he should veto it because it is averse to beachfront management law developed over decades — and the bill was passed in a questionable way. Unfortunately, some DeBordieu property owners may have to suffer for it. But trying to buttress homes against the ocean is ultimately futile even if they are million-dollar-plus properties.