South Carolina Court Weighs What Residents Call ‘Chaotic’ Coastal Adaptation Standards


The South Carolina Court of Appeals is weighing a request to stop the construction of three erosion control structures called groins on Debidue Beach, 60 miles north of Charleston, based on arguments that they could damage a critical estuarine reserve.

Environmental advocates were in court last week to argue that the groins—which were approved in 2019 by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC)—will trap sand and “starve” North Inlet-Winyah Bay, a national reserve located five miles from the planned construction, and limit access to a public trust. 

Debidue residents argued that they have spent tens of millions of dollars over the past decades to replace the beach’s sand and need the new construction to stop water that is now lapping at the community’s southernmost home.

As the East Coast braces against accelerated erosion, fueled by rising sea levels and stronger more frequent storms, Debidue is one example of how South Carolina communities are grappling with coastal adaptation.

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Recent changes to the state’s coastal management regulations have created a legal gray area, and environmental advocates as well as residents point out that state standards are not consistently followed or enforced. Advocates say the lack of clarity results in some unfairness: low-income communities along the coast are less able financially to go to court over climate-related property risks.

“Equity plays a huge part in this,” said Omar Muhammad, executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, a grassroots organization focused on quality of life inequalities in North Charleston.  “When you look at environmental justice communities throughout the United States, you see an intentional disinvestment in those communities.”

Both the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, a charity protecting natural spaces which is appealing the groin permit, and Debidue residents who plan to build the groins have described the state’s current adaptation standards as confusing.

“I wouldn’t say there is a regional approach,” for coastal adaptation, said Blanche Brown, Debidue homeowners’ association manager for more than two decades. “It’s chaotic, most definitely.” 

Leslie Lenhardt, a South Carolina Environmental Law Project attorney representing the Conservation League, echoed that sentiment. “It’s becoming very, very chaotic,” said Lenhardt, who is also challenging the building of a private seawall on Hilton Head Island located about 120 miles south, a new golf course on an island just north of Debidue and ongoing sand mining on another island in between. “People are installing sandbags and calling it research,” she said.

The Debidue case centers on how quickly South Carolina’s beaches are disappearing, and highlights years of scientific and legal ambiguity over how to evaluate local erosion.

According to state law, groins—structures built perpendicular to the shoreline—can only be installed to protect areas with a “high” rate of erosion. The DHEC has no explicit statutory definition of “high,” but has used three feet per year as a threshold since their coastal management office opened in the 1990s. 

Lenhardt told the appeal panel of judges that the standard is inconsistent and based on bad science.

A completed groin at Debidue Beach in October 2023. Credit: Charles Swenson/Coastal Observer

In an earlier state Administrative Law Court hearing, which preceded the appeal, retired department official Bill Eiser explained that the standard was rooted in two reports. One from 1979, prepared by coastal researchers at the University of South Carolina, stated “typical” erosion rates without providing any calculations. The other was written in 1988 by Tim Kana, a former researcher with the University of Carolina and founder of a coastal engineering consultancy, and did not include average erosion rates.

Kana testified in the administrative court that while erosion at Debidue’s shoreline was moderate in terms of how much dry beach was lost, the volume of underwater sand displaced was high. In its appeal, the Coastal Conservation League said all the department officials who testified “offered no testimony about having calculated the mean or median erosion rate for the State at any time.”

In Florida, by contrast, state law requires its Department of Environmental Protection to annually update a list of “critically eroded” beaches, which qualify for additional management permits.

During the hearing last week, Judge Aphrodite Konduros acknowledged the uncertainties in South Carolina. “We don’t have a map for the coast in South Carolina that says this one’s high, this one’s medium, these are the changes,” Konduros said. “It is such a sliding scale for the purposes of our review.”

Lenhardt argued that, in fact, average erosion in South Carolina is more than double three feet, according to a 2017 state funded study. The administrative court ruled that the study was not “reliable or probative.” In the appeals court hearing, Lenhardt pointed out that DHEC has for years used the report as the basis of its own tool for analyzing coastal risk.

Defining three feet a year as “high” erosion, Lenhardt told judges, would signal that any eroding beach along South Carolina’s coast meets this criteria for groins. 

“‘High’ does not mean things less than the average,” Lenhardt said in an interview before the hearing. She added that specific calculations are not as important as setting a clear standard for protecting the environment and building on public lands.

“We are all aware that the push and pull [between] property owners and sea level rise and climate change is becoming more and more extreme,” she said. “It’s not surprising or unreasonable to be concerned about your property, but what you’re talking about is the public’s access to public trust property.”

Emily Cedzo, the conservation league’s policy director, said cases similar to Debidue are inspiring a “domino effect.” “Owners along these beach communities are just grasping for any kind of silver bullet that can address the reality of living in an incredibly dynamic system,” Cedzo said.

Groins and other erosion controls stop sand moving naturally—which protects the nearest beaches—but they have been blamed for speeding up erosion in other areas along the coast. In North Inlet-Winyah Bay, a 19,000-acre national reserve five miles away, Debidue’s groins could threaten the habitat of nesting sea turtles, sturgeon and endangered seabirds, environmentalists argued in their appeal.

According to state law, groins can only be installed to protect areas with a “high” rate of erosion. Credit: Charles Swenson/Coastal Observer
According to state law, groins can only be installed to protect areas with a “high” rate of erosion. Credit: Charles Swenson/Coastal Observer

“It is such a difficult juxtaposition to have private property and a public trust resource right next to one another on the frontline of climate change,” Cedzo said.

DHEC is litigating a different type of private coastal adaptation near the Charleston harbor. On Feb. 9, the department filed for an injunction against Rom Reddy, the owner of a synthetic turf company who also runs a local news site, for building a seawall in the backyard of his beachfront property on the Isle of Palms.

Reddy uses his website to make the case for his seawall—and posted that he built the wall inside his own property. After Storm Idalia in August 2023 and a brisk nor’easter in December, however, the edge of many properties on the Isle of Palm have become increasingly indistinguishable from the beach itself—which DHEC noted in its legal action against Reddy.

Reddy argues that the department acted unconstitutionally by trying to block the wall. “For homeowners, with one storm, your backyard can be annexed by the state,” he wrote in one of his self-published opinion pieces.

DHEC declined to comment on either the Debidue or Isle of Palms cases.

State law is designed to prevent developers building in the part of a beach which erosion is predicted to destroy in the next four decades. At the Isle of Palms, that area was last calculated six years ago, but erosion has already all but destroyed it and brought waves to the foot of Reddy’s yard, according to the DHEC legal filing.

“The rapid rate of sea level rise is exposing the inefficiencies of our existing processes,” said Dale Morris, chief resilience officer for the City of Charleston. “Our frameworks aren’t up to speed, not just in South Carolina. It’s everywhere, every coastal area.”

South Carolina’s coastal management plan was created in the 1980s, when the state convened a blue-ribbon committee to strategize how to balance growing tourism with increasingly rapid coastal erosion. 

In a 1987 report, experts issued a stark message: “sand beaches are rapidly disappearing.” They described the coast “in a state of crisis” and recommended a “gradual retreat” over the next 30 years, “encouraging those who have erected structures too close to the [beach] system to retreat from it.”

“The rapid rate of sea level rise is exposing the inefficiencies of our existing processes.”

The following year, those recommendations became the foundation for the 1988 Beachfront Management Act, designed, as Lenhardt argued in court last week,“to keep the beach the beach.” 

The act instructed DHEC to calculate the predicted rate of erosion at each beach through 2028. The predictions were to be updated every six to 10 years. No new large houses or structural erosion controls such as seawalls could be built in the area erosion was predicted to destroy, and homes wrecked there could only be rebuilt further inland. 

In this way, development would gradually “retreat” from a shifting coastline. The act was first tested by Storm Hugo in 1989, when dozens of homes were damaged and homeowners complied and rebuilt miles inland. 

The law has been amended by degrees several times. In 2002, groins were defined. In 2014, an exception was added to allow golf courses in the protected zone to be repaired. Then there was a pivotal change in 2018—which advocates say created the current confusion 

South Carolina’s legislators removed all references to “retreat” from the Beachfront Management Act. The amended text required DHEC to plan over an unspecified time for the “preservation…of the beach/dune system,” which “must promote wise use of the state’s beachfront.” Wise was not defined.

The same year as the amendment, scientific consensus appeared to coalesce around the national need to restrict development and eventually“retreat” from the coast. “In all but the very lowest sea level rise projections, retreat will become an unavoidable option in some areas along the U.S. coastline,” scientists wrote at a benchmark federal climate assessment conference.

Since groins were defined in 2002, the law has been amended by degrees several times. Credit: Charles Swenson/Coastal Observer
Since groins were defined in 2002, the law has been amended by degrees several times. Credit: Charles Swenson/Coastal Observer

Since the 2018 amendment, Cedzo said, environmental groups, developers and local communities have been “grappling” with the different definitions of beach preservation, some of which have emboldened South Carolinians to take a private stand against erosion. “Some might read it and assume that means hold the line,” she said. “But the way we think about it, it’s more holistic than that.”

Lenhardt told Inside Climate News that the change opened the door for a wave of challenges to the 1988 beachfront act.

Ever since the move to preservation, the amended, more vague wording has allowed for “extremely chaotic” enforcement of the 1988 act, Lenhardt said. Cases like Debidue also demonstrate that not every community can afford to explore that legal ambiguity, she said. Residents in Debidue have spent over $40 million replacing the beach’s sand, according to the homeowner’s association. Constructing the groins will cost a further $3 million. 

South Carolina Beach Advocates and other environmental groups have suggested centralized funding for coastal adaptation would be more fair. 

In a separate intervention on the Charleston peninsula, there is such a centralized approach. Congress approved $1.1 billion plans for a seawall around Charleston peninsula in 2022. City officials are now working with engineers from the U.S. Army Corps on the design. Even here, however, advocates are concerned that in the absence of a statewide coastal plan, the city’s wealthier downtown will be protected while poor communities are left vulnerable.

The eight-mile wall, which city officials call a “battery,” will stop just before the isthmus of Charleston peninsula, known as the Neck, where the average resident is three times more likely to identify as a person of color. In Rosemont, a low-income neighborhood closest to the end of the project, residents said they were apprehensive about the proposed changes.

“The community in Rosemont did not understand the project: what is a seawall? Why is this seawall needed?” said Muhammad of the Lowcountry Alliance. “If the seawall is going to prevent damage and provide us a level of protection from stormwater, then why isn’t this wall extended along Rosemont?”

Corps engineers said in a recent report that Rosemont would not suffer flooding because the neighborhood is more elevated than the peninsula. The report did little to convince a community that was already experiencing frequent floods, Muhammad said.

“Local decision makers were describing Rosemont as ‘it does not flood,’” Muhammad said. “Rosemont was experiencing flooding.” Rosemont was wrongly left out of the corps’ calculations because it was seen as beyond the project area, he added.

Judy Taylor,  a master’s student from the nearby College of Charleston, caught the attention of city planners when she conducted a drone study of the neighborhood’s elevation in 2022. She revealed that the Army Corps engineers were relying on coarse and in some cases outdated data—and did not realize how Rosemont’s geography itself had changed. 

Since the neighborhood’s elevation data was last compiled, drainage ditches along the east of Rosemont were filled in to build a wall along an interstate onramp, according to the study. In fact, almost all of Rosemont lies under the height of the proposed sea wall today.

In an appendix to their seawall plan, Corps engineers valued private development on the peninsula at more than $15 billion, and estimated that there would be an average $842 million of flood damages each year if no seawall is built. 

Congress approved federal funding for a second and ongoing study to mitigate flooding on the Neck, which is home to some of the first African American neighborhoods established after the Reconstruction Era. 

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Instead of a seawall, Muhammad said, researchers are considering restoring marsh plants west of Rosemont to calm waves during a storm. Healthy marshes could also help remediate heavy metal pollution from a nearby 100-acre superfund site just south of Rosemont, at the site of an old wood treatment plant and fertilizer factory. They also hope to build a buffer community space which can drain quickly after floods.

Muhammad said Rosemont is in line for some help, but that other low-income coastal communities do not have the resources of residents in Debidue, or the Isle of Palms.

“They have the political capital. They can bring experts to the table. They can come up with the solutions that they can then articulate into a policy framework, or other mechanisms that can get funding,” Muhammad said of Debidue and Isle of Palms

“Environmental justice communities can’t—because they’re fighting everyday just for basic essentials,” like rent, medicine and food, he said. “It’s hard when people are just trying to live to have conversations with them about climate change.”


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