Wild Dunes owners in 'potential violation'

Dozens of large sand bags are carried by truck and placed in front of homes on Wild Dunes where severe erosion threatens the homes at the end of November.

ISLE OF PALMS — Seven months after state regulators told Wild Dunes property owners they could be fined for breaking the rules and using sandbags, the hammer has dropped — part way.

Violation notices sent out Monday did not specifically fine any of the six condominium complexes and two other beachfront properties for not removing sandbags by the Nov. 30 deadline. The letter sent Monday "serves as notice of potential violation," according to a copy of a S.C. Ocean and Coastal Resource Management letter obtained Friday by The Post and Courier.

Fines range from $100 to $1,000 per day for each of the eight complexes and properties.

The owners don't know what to think.

"I can't explain it. I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop," said John O'Hare, an owner and homeowner's association president at Seascape, one of the complexes.

"The word 'potential' is used as a legal formality at this part in the process," Dan Burger, OCRM communications director, wrote in an e-mail, because the property owners can challenge the allegations. It's a standard agency enforcement order that allows the agency some discretion in negotiating a settlement.

An environmental group battling the use of the sandbags reacted sharply to the letter.

"There's no 'potential' violation here. These people are in violation. They have been warned. Enforcement action needs to start. The fines should have started (last) Saturday," Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League said.

Burger said if a settlement cannot be reached with the owners at a Dec. 20 enforcement conference, an enforcement order will be sent that specifies the fines. He said the violation and enforcement orders both can be appealed, "so we may be looking at a protracted legal process."

The letter also cites the owners for not complying with the emergency order allowing the sandbags because they didn't use beach-compatible sand and because they didn't pursue other alternatives. OCRM in October gave the owners a permit to truck in some sand to renourish temporarily in place of the bags. The owners appealed, saying it wasn't enough to protect the properties without the bags.

The bagged sand came from a state-approved pit, O'Hare said. "And no one wanted to bring in 18,000 truckloads of sand. OCRM knows that. ... The lawyers are going to fight it. The bags cannot come out."

The violation letter is the latest half-step in a long dance between regulators and owners, who say the sandbags are the only thing left between their properties and ocean on the eroding Dewees Inlet beach. Thousands of bags, many of them freshly replaced, still stand a week after the deadline to remove them.

More than 100,000 small bags approved by OCRM as an emergency erosion stopgap earlier in the year shredded and were washed out to sea. Larger bags replaced them but are washed over by storm tides. Utility lines have had to be reworked to keep buildings from being condemned. The owners' attorneys have said they will sue the state for $500 million in the property value that could be lost.

The city has applied for a permit to renourish the beach with offshore sand, and OCRM is pushing the city and owners to complete that work by spring. But the agency won't extend the emergency order that allowed the sandbags because using the bags worsens erosion on the beach and the extension would undermine coastal regulations, Burger said.