KIAWAH ISLAND — The irreplaceable, fragile environs of Capt. Sam’s Spit and its popular Beachwalker Park aren’t all that’s put in jeopardy by a proposed 50-home development there.
Residents of swank Kiawah Island might be left holding the bag for it.
Under terms agreed to in 2005, the Kiawah Island Community Association would assume responsibility for a multi-million dollar sea wall and access road that must be built for the project. They would run across the narrow neck where the spit joins the rest of the island just west of the park.
The agreement is pretty standard for the island. KICA maintains most of the other roads and some utilities across its 10-mile span.
But at the neck’s narrowest point, the Atlantic Ocean is separated from the Kiawah River by only 100 yards or so, less than the widths of Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands in North Carolina, where a state road regularly overwashes and breached during recent hurricanes.
The spit is eroding on the river side, where the road and wall are planned, and the neck was breached as recently as 1949, according to the Carolina Geological Society.
As coastal roads go, this one is high-risk.
KICA, meanwhile, is struggling for funds to maintain its current roads and utilities, some of them more than 30 years old. A reserve fund for that work — paid for by an assessment on property sales — dropped so low that KICA has levied a $150 “special assessment” tax on residents for 2013, doubled it for 2014 “and thereafter, as long as the board deems necessary.”
The reserve fund now has about $6 million. Replacing an access road and sea wall along that narrow neck could come close to draining the reserve, and residents would be left on the hook.
“It would be a large expense for the residents,” said Greg VanDerwerker, who circulated a petition a few years ago calling for a covenant change that would have relieved residents of responsibility for repairs on either end of the island. A majority favored that during a referendum the petition generated, but not the “super majority” required to make the change, he said.
“A road on Captain Sam’s Spit will inevitably be overwashed and perhaps even washed out in strong storms,” said resident Paula Feldman in an email. “The mansions that this road will make possible will be more vulnerable than most ocean-front property to hurricane damage. When a hurricane washes them into the Kiawah River and marsh, taxpayers will be on the hook to clean out the debris and the pollutants. Some of this damage to fragile wetlands will be irreparable.”
Jimmy Bailey, KICA chief operating officer, said it was too soon to comment on the liabilities of the association taking on a road that hasn’t been built yet.
“As is its long standing practice, KICA will work closely with both the town and Kiawah Partners during the planning, approval process, and construction stages, to influence the design and construction of potential common properties in order to assure that those properties are consistent with the maintenance capabilities of the association,” Bailey said in a formal statement after speaking to The Post and Courier.
KICA currently maintains 55 miles of road, 43 miles of drainage and more than 900 acres of open space, he said.
The spit is a teardrop-shaped, continually eroding sand strip along Capt. Sam’s Inlet between Kiawah and Seabrook islands, left undeveloped while much of the rest of the island has been built upon. Its cape beach is a feeding ground that draws flocks of seabirds. The inlet bank where the wall would be set is part of a rare strand-feeding ground, where dolphins drive schools of bait fish onto the beach and jump after them to eat. The behavior is not found anywhere but the Southeast coast.
The spit is one of the few undeveloped barrier island spits the public has ready access to because of adjacent Beachwalker Park. The only shore-based access to the spit runs through the park and the town holds an easement through it for the access road. What would be done with the park when the road is built hasn’t been decided yet.
The proposed 20-acre development on the 150-acre spit is valuable equity for Kiawah Development Partners. Leonard Long, KDP’s executive vice president, testified during a 2009 permit hearing that the company took out a $50 million mortgage against the property two or three years ago, then used the money to help fund a new resort on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Long testified that without a then-planned revetment to shore up the access road, the land wouldn’t be as marketable.
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Editor’s note: Previous versions of this story had an incorrect title for Jimmy Bailey. The Post and Courier regrets the error.