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SC island property owners ask state to keep sandbag wall

Cormorants on dock remnants at Debordieu Beach, SC
Tim and Julie Wilson
Cormorants on dock remnants at Debordieu Beach, SC

A politically appointed board will hear an appeal from property owners who want to bury sandbags along a South Carolina beach to fight erosion, despite concerns that sandbag walls are likely to make the beach wash away faster.

A three-member committee of the Department of Health and Environmental Control board voted unanimously last week to hold a hearing before the full board early next year, The State of Columbia reported. The board will consider overturning a staff decision denying permission to keep sandbags in place on Debordieu Island, south of Myrtle Beach.

Seven landowners had a contractor install sandbag walls after a 2020 hurricane and want to keep them, even though coastal regulators say the bags were put in illegally and have ordered them removed.

Photographs show water washing close to houses on Debordieu's southern end.

"My property is in imminent danger of catastrophic loss,'' Rodney Cain, the registered agent for landowner Northwest Properties, said in a December 2020 enforcement notice.

Landowners say burying the sandbag walls under sand as part of an upcoming beach renourishment project would be a scientific experiment.

The coastal division says the bags were not only installed without state permission, but that South Carolina law does not allow sandbags to be buried permanently under the beach.

Sandbags could threaten nesting sea turtles and worsen already serious beach erosion, leaving less room for the public to walk on, environmentalists say. Seawalls were banned in South Carolina in the late 1980s because they worsen beach erosion when hit by waves.

DHEC board members Sonny Kinney and Rick Lee said during the meeting that they are concerned about the ocean's threat to seaside homes at Debordieu's southern tip.

Coastal Carolina University professor Paul Gayes has proposed leaving the bags and burying them with sand to see how well they protect land, The State reported. He declined comment when reached by the newspaper, citing the upcoming hearing.

Supporters say the pillow-case shaped sandbags are part of a unique technology that is more effective at building sand dunes and protecting land.

State law allows erosion-control experiments. But DHEC staff members question the effort.

"That's probably my biggest concern is the fact that we're just saying no to investigating another option that could be beneficial to the coast,'' Kinney said. "If you look at the pictures, they are scary and ... you're talking about millions of dollars.''

DHEC's board is appointed by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. DHEC staff members and others are skeptical that the bags offer anything new.

"It's not new technology; these are being used all over the country,'' said Rob Young, a Western Carolina University geologist who studies beachfront development and erosion.

The South Carolina coast faces increasing threats from swelling sea levels and more intense storms, which are linked to rising earth temperatures. Sea-level rise is accelerating and some people say the best solution is to scale back development to protect lives and prevent government bailouts.

The southern end of Debordieu has been the subject of disputes over efforts to repair a seawall that has protected homes since 1981 but is beginning to fail. Debordieu homeowners also are fighting in court for the right to place rock walls, called groins, into the ocean from the beach to trap sand.

Allowing the Debordieu owners to keep the sandbag walls could spur landowners along the coast to seek the same thing, said Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League.

"The concern is that absolutely you are legalizing materials that are incredibly similar to seawalls and the detrimental effects they have on the beach,'' Cedzo said. "A seawall is in place to protect what is behind it to the detriment of what is in front of it — the dry sandy beach that you and I walk on.''

The Coastal Conservation League is asking to participate in the hearing. Property owners would be rewarded for ignoring state law if the DHEC board overrules agency staff and approves the bags, the legal request said.