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Pawleys Island: Agencies oppose south end groin

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Federal and state agencies are recommending denial of Georgetown County’s request to build a rock groin on the south end of Pawleys Island. They say there is no need for the project, and that it could harm wildlife habitat along the shore.

A public hearing on the project was scheduled for June 24 by the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, which must approve the permit.

The county applied in April for permits to build a 205-foot-long groin perpendicular to the beach at the end of the public parking lot. The lot is the county’s largest free public beach assess. State law allows construction of new groins to protect public parks on beaches with high erosion rates as part of an on-going beach nourishment project.

But the county has to show that the project won’t harm adjacent beaches.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Natural Resources say the groin will impact threatened species by increasing erosion on beaches to the south, or downdrift side.

Timothy Hall, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife office in Charleston, said biologists went to the south end in early May.

“There was no indication of erosion and therefore no apparent need for the proposed project,” Hall wrote in a letter to the Corps of Engineers, which must also approve the permit.

Groins are designed to trap sand carried in currents that move parallel to the beach. If that happens, there could be “erosion of the sand spit downdrift of the groin resulting in net loss of beach instead of a net gain.”

That will impact habitat used by shorebirds and sea turtles, said Susan Davis, coastal environmental coordinator for Natural Resources, in her letter to the corps.

“Surveys of migrant shorebirds in the last three decades indicate most shorebirds are in serious decline,” Davis wrote. “One of the biggest causes of shorebird decline is habitat loss.”

The environmental agencies also question the county’s ability to find compatible sand from an upland source to nourish the beach once the groin is built. And that would affect the success of sea turtle nests, they say.

“Finding a suitable upland source that is similar to those occurring on nearby natural beaches would be difficult at best,” Davis said.

The groin permit received support from Pawleys Island property owners, who sent a dozen letters urging Coastal Resources to approve the application. Five times as many letters were sent in opposition by property owners at Prince George, which is on the south side of Pawleys Inlet.

The S.C. Environmental Law Project represents the Coastal Conservation League and local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club in opposing the permit. The project doesn’t meet the criteria for a permit, according to Amy Armstrong, staff attorney for the law project.

“The parking lot is not currently threatened by erosion,” she said in comments to the permitting agencies. “Yet there is significant public beach downdrift of the proposed groin that would be threatened.”

The town of Pawleys Island and the Pawleys Island Civic Association support the project. Both cite the need to preserve the public beach access and say the groin would help improve safety for swimmers by stabilizing the inlet.

Rip currents at the south end have caused several drownings in recent years.

“The existing groins on Pawleys Island have proved their value in many ways and this would be an extension of the ‘backbone’ of the island,” said Linwood Altman, the civic association president, in his comments. “Opposition to projects of this type are usually philosophical and without proven merit.”

Among the comments from island property owners, Ed Venters of Greenville wrote that the groin, which would be the 24th on the island’s south end, would project houses at Prince George and DeBordieu from the movement of Pawleys Inlet. Stabilizing the inlet would also improve its value as an estuary, he wrote.

But Prince George property owners see no benefit from the project.

In addition to citing environmental concerns about the proposed groin, the Prince George Community Association wants Coastal Resources to evaluate the cumulative effect of other beach nourishment projects on the south end of Pawleys Island including last year’s dredging in Pawleys Creek.

“These activities have already caused significant shifts in the beach/dune system at Pawleys Creek inlet,” said Doris Dawson, the association president, in a letter to the agencies.

The comments underscore the range of conflicting opinions about erosion control devices.

A letter from the executive committee of the local Sierra Club chapter notes that “whereas there are already 23 groins in place to the north of this proposed site, the supposed need for a 24th is clear proof that the others really do not work as expected.”

Evans Holland of Florence, a Pawley Island property owner, said there is a groin in front of his house and he has seen how it stabilizes the beach.

Yet, the Fish and Wildlife Service found “the southernmost groin of the existing groin field is allowing sediment transport and the southern tip of the island appears to be accreting.”

The county’s permit request also drew a comment from Orrin Pilkey, an emeritus professor of earth science at Duke University and long-time critic of beachfront development.

“The parking lot is not falling in and if it was it could be moved,” he wrote. But he said the most important concern is that the new groin will trap sand that would otherwise go to downdrift beaches and lead to erosion.

“Groins elsewhere in many places in the world have had a profound impact on the downdrift beaches, often leading to the installation of more self-defense groins a seawalls,” he said. “The potential impact on communities that already have an erosion problem is huge.”

The hearing on the county’s groin permit is schdeuld for June 24 at 6 p.m. in the Waccamaw Library conference room.

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