A tiny cape near Charleston has been a point of controversy for years over how it should be developed, or even if it should be at all. 150-acre Captain Sam’s Spit is a small tip at the end of Kiawah Island.
The real estate group Kiawah Development Partners wants to eventually sell the land to build beach houses. However, locals say the Spit is too fragile and should be left undisturbed.
The latest fight is over a sea wall that’s needed along Captain Sam’s Inlet, a river on the back side of the island, before a road can run out to the Spit. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) blocked much its construction in 2009, only authorizing a 270-foot wall close to a county park on the main island.
Last year, an administrative law judge ruled in the developer’s favor, saying the wall was necessary if development were to happen on the Spit. DHEC and the Coastal Conservation League appealed the judge’s decision. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled against the wall on Monday, in a victory for environmental groups.
Sidi Limehouse is a John’s Island farmer who leads the Friends of Kiawah Island, which has been fighting to stop the wall. “The people who are to develop the land just sold their last beachfront lot,” Limehouse told South Carolina Radio Network, “They want to put 50 houses on (Captain Sam’s).”
Part of the issue is that the inlet is entirely sand dunes, meaning the land tends to be less stable than the loam soil of barrier islands like Kiawah. “A major storm comes… whatever they have there is going to be in the marsh,” Limehouse said. “And they’re going to come, they always have and they always will.”
And, he adds, neither insurance companies nor the federal government will offer insurance to properties that fall between the ocean and the state’s “setback line” (which Captain Sam’s would). Erosion from the inlet is chipping away at the Spit’s back side, although the ocean current is causing additional sand to accumulate on its front.
Kiawah Development officials say the land is not as fragile as environmentalists maintain. “It’s really not,” spokesman Mike Touhill, “With simple steps to combat the riverside erosion, it’s quite stable.”
The company says 80 percent of the land would still be protected as a natural habitat if development were allowed.
The Supreme Court said Monday the administrative law judge lacked the authority to overrule DHEC and did not take into account the environmental and ecological impact of the wall.
The partnership is asking the Supreme Court for a rehearing, saying the justices should not inject their own judgment into the case simply because they disagree with the original judge’s conclusion.
“Lost in all of this is the fact that (the cape) is private land,” Touhill said, “If the owner decides that limited development on that piece of property is what he wants to do, than that’s what they’ll decide to do.”
Limehouse conceded that Kiawah did own the property on the Spit, but said the area where the sea wall would be placed is considered public beach. “This land that they’re trying to cover up belongs to the people of South Carolina,” he said, “It doesn’t belong to them. They want to cover it up to protect their land.”
There are two other cases involving the development that are currently in the state’s court system. The others deal with a small wall to be located on the beach, and whether or not the state has the power to stop work on private land.