A state board ruled Monday in favor of rebuilding a controversial Georgetown County seawall amid questions about whether legislative involvement had made it impossible for the board to vote against the project.
More than a year after the Legislature agreed in a budget proviso to allow the seawall, the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s appeals review panel voted against hearing a legal challenge by environmentalists. The decision allows the project to move forward.
While the Legislature approved the proviso authorizing the wall, construction still technically needed approval from DHEC. The agency’s staff approved the seawall recently.
“The issue of course is that a specific budget proviso was clearly written … to specifically allow this replacement to occur,’’ appeals committee member Mark Lutz said, echoing recent questions by fellow DHEC board member Clarence Batts. “At what point does a budget proviso, if at all ... take precedence over an existing statute?
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“I do think this is an interesting case in front of us.’’
Allowing construction of the bulkhead at Debordieu goes against South Carolina’s 27-year-old ban on new seawalls, which make beach erosion worse when pounded by the ocean. The wall is expected to protect no more than two-dozen high-end beach homes, some owned by influential property owners, at the resort between Myrtle Beach and Georgetown.
The Legislature banned seawalls in 1988. But efforts to ease the ban to help Debordieu began in the Legislature more than two years ago. That prompted criticism that allowing the wall could set a precedent and prompt other seaside communities to ask for new bulkheads.
Legislators favoring reconstruction, led by Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, wanted to help constituents whose beach houses faced heavy damage if an existing wooden seawall failed. At the time, waves were crashing daily against the battered wall and property values were dropping.
Since the Legislature approved the new wall near the end of the 2014 session, Debordieu landowners have launched a privately funded beach renourishment project that has widened the seashore. That makes the immediate need for the wall less urgent, but with a naturally high beach erosion rate on Debordieu’s southern end, seaside property owners still want the wall. The renourished beach is expected to wash away and expose the seawall again one day.
The S.C. Environmental Law Project and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League asked for the DHEC appeals hearing to challenge the agency staff decision. The groups may now appeal the matter in court. Lawyer Amy Armstrong said “a further challenge is very, very likely.’’