The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday against granting approval for developers to build an extensive seawall at Kiawah Island. The ruling is the latest in a dispute between a real estate developer and environmentalists that has lasted for years.
The justices agreed in a 3-2 decision that a bulkhead should not be built at Captain Sam’s Spit, which the island’s developer says is needed to stop erosion on the thin strip of land. The Spit is surrounded by the marshy Kiawah River to its north and west and the Atlantic Ocean to its southeast. Kiawah Development Partners is eyeing the potential real estate on the western end of the Spit, but a road would have to be built out there first. The company has said it needs the seawall to be approved for that to happen.
Friends of the Kiawah River President Sidi Limehouse said he is glad their fight to stop the development is over. “It’s a very important piece, the only piece left on the immediate coast that can be saved. We have our work cut out for us, again. But at least it can’t be developed now,” he told South Carolina Radio Network after the ruling.
In 2008, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) permitted only 270 of the 2,513 feet that Kiawah was seeking for the wall. DHEC officials said they were concerned that the wall would interfere with the natural erosion along the river and that it would clear the way for new homes in the inlet’s fragile sand dunes. The agency must give its approval for any construction along a coastal shoreline.
The developers appealed to an Administrative Law Court judge, who reversed DHEC’s decision on the condition that Kiawah agree to make some alterations. DHEC and the Coastal Conservation League appealed the decision, arguing the judge did not have the authority to modify environmental permits. The Supreme Court initially agreed with them in November 2011, but then sided with Kiawah last year. However, the court agreed to rehear the case a third time just three months later.
Limehouse said he is delighted that his group’s hard work paid off. “Of course I am very happy it turned out in our favor, you know we’ve had a long struggle. With that we’ve been through all the courts, all the court battles. It looks like we finally prevailed and now we’ve got work ahead of us.” Limehouse said.
Writing for the majority, Justices Kay Hearn said lower courts did not factor in whether the bulkhead would ensure “maximum public benefit,” as coast law requires. “It was clear that only the developer, not the public, would benefit from the construction of this enormous bulkhead and revetment,” she wrote.
“Captain Sam’s Spit and the public tidelands along its margins are of great importance to the people of South Carolina,” the court said. “The tidelands present a bounty of benefits to the people ranging from environmental to recreational. Unlike much of our state’s coastline which is now armored and unnatural, the spit remains untouched by human alteration. The area, particularly the pristine sandy beach, is undoubtedly one of this state’s natural treasures.”
However Chief Justice Jean Toal disagreed, saying the lower Administrative Law Court judge reached a reasonable decision after reviewing more than 2,800 pages of documents related to the case. “With the best of intentions, the majority’s view of deference to the opinions of an agency bureaucracy on not only facts but also on the agency’s interpretation of statutory law fundamentally undermines South Carolina’s longstanding approach to controlling unrestrained bureaucratic decisions regarding private property rights,” she wrote.