Take a close look at the photo that accompanies this article. It’s an aerial view of a beach tract called Captain Sams Spit at the west (lower) end of Kiawah Island in Charleston County. This 150-acre teardrop-shaped series of small sand dunes connects to the main part of Kiawah at a narrow skewer, or spit, of sand (at left in photo) near Beachwalker Park, the only public access point on the popular resort.
Seabrook Island (at right but not pictured) is the next gated beach property. The Kiawah River separates the islands where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Beachwalker Park was opened in 1976 as a concession by the Kiawah developers to the county so that non-residents could park their cars (at $7 each) and access the beach. All of South Carolina’s beaches are public, but not all of them are easy for non-property owners to reach because they are gated or have no bridge to the mainland.
Today at Beachwalker Park, visitors leave their cars in a lot and trek a short way down to the beach. To their left are miles of the developed part of the island, and to the right is a short stretch of some of the most beautiful, undisturbed beach and dunes found anywhere in coastal South Carolina. Thousands of birds feed in the Atlantic and nest in the sands here. Giant turtles lay eggs in the dunes. Bottlenose dolphins feed on mullet in the ocean as well as in the Kiawah River. Dolphins use the beach on the inland side of the tract to “strand feed” — a rare occurrence where the fish are herded out of the river and onto the sand. The dolphins slide up on the shore, grab a mouthful of their prey, and then wiggle backward into the river.
As the photo shows, scrub trees have grown on the sandy strip and serve as shelter for deer, coyotes, wildcats and raccoons as evidenced by an abundance of paw prints and scat.
But trouble is on the horizon, and if the latest developers manage to get their way, there will be a lot that’s wrong with this picture.
In 2010, Kiawah Development Partners got permission from the state to build an enormous 2,783-foot long bulkhead and revetment on the riverside of the spit in what would have been a futile attempt to halt erosion and clear the way for a paved road to the end of the beach. The plan also called for installment of a steel retainer wall that would be pounded deep into the sand as an additional precaution. Last December, after several rulings and appeals, the state Supreme Court voted 3-2 against allowing the work.
Now, a Charlotte-based group of investors, which has purchased the tract from Kiawah Development Partners, is lobbying legislators and others for a delay in a change that would make permanent a beach construction setback line this year.
Such a delay could allow the developers to build a road through Beachwalker Park and down the narrow sand strip to access 50 proposed home sites, which would be sold for millions each. (Current prices for beachfront houses at Kiawah range from $2 million to $24 million.) The cost of insurance, taxes and regime fees is anybody’s guess.
Legislators leading the effort to grant the developers their wish include state Sen. Paul Campbell, a Berkeley County Republican, who chairs a subcommittee considering a delay of making permanent protective beachfront setback rules.
Meanwhile, the project would reportedly be marketed by the developers as “Cape Charles” rather than Captain Sams Spit. Presumably that would make the property more enticing to buyers. After all, the word “spit” is seldom use in promotional brochures for resort property. Still, it’s hard to see how even a glossy pitch could overcome the common sense objections to building on such obviously shifting sands.
Which begs the question:
Who would reasonably consider spending so much to build on this unstable place? And why would the state allow anyone to upset such a delicate balance in nature to accommodate a mere 50 fat cats?
NOTE: At last count, approximately 10,000 homeowners have already built front-beach houses on South Carolina’s eroding barrier islands. Another 50 of them on Captain Sams Spit would be, well, 50 too many.
John M. Burbage is a life-long journalist and current book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and on a farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.