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Pawleys Island: New groin project stalls as agencies await word from county on permit

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A year after a hearing on its permit request to build a rock and concrete groin on the south end of Pawleys Island, Georgetown County officials are still waiting for word from state and federal regulators about the project. But the agencies say the project is listed as inactive.

“As of this moment, I haven’t heard a thing,” said Don Corinna, the county’s capital projects manager.

He said he was out on the south end over the weekend with visitors. “That beach needs some help,” he said. With 100 parking spaces, it is the largest free public beach access in the county. The county wants to build a groin to protect the parking lot from erosion.

The project requires approval from the Corps of Engineers and the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. Various other agencies have input into the permit review.

But according to the Corps, the permit request was withdrawn in January by Applied Technology and Management, the county’s consultant on the project.

“It’s inactive,” said Glenn Jefferies, a spokeswoman for the Charleston District of the Corps of Engineers. “They had some issues with the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

A letter from the Corps was sent to the county following the hearing in July 2009 saying more information was needed on the impact of the project on endangered plants and animals.

“We haven’t heard back from the Corps or ATM [the county’s consultant],” said Jennifer Koches, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife. “The consultation has never been initiated.”

Fran Way, an engineer with Applied Technology who designed the project for the county, said any letter to the Corps about the project would have come from him.

 “We didn’t send any letter,” he said. “That’s interesting, but it’s not true.”

He said he hadn’t heard anything from the regulators, either and attributed that to the pace of review. “The Corps has an incredibly large backlog,” Way said.

But Jefferies said it was a letter from his firm that put the project on the inactive list.

“Georgetown County was going to follow up on all this information,” Way said. “They were adamant that they wanted to do it.”

Coastal Resources is waiting for water quality certification for the project from DHEC’s Bureau of Water, according to Dan Burger, communications director for Coastal Resources.

“Once the water quality certification is complete, we’ll finalize our technical review,” he said.

The Bureau of Water was told by the county in March that it was withdrawing its request for certification temporarily, said Adam Myrick, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“We don’t have an active application on the project,” he said.

Corinna said the county withdrew the water quality certification on the advice of Applied Technology.

“We didn’t want to spend any more money,” he said. “We spent $90,000 with ATM and only have a report and a permit application to show for it.”

But in May, he said, the county decided to move forward and County Administrator Sel Hemingway wrote the Bureau of Water to restart the certification.

“DHEC shouldn’t have it as inactive,” he said.

But the Bureau of Water has no record of that request, said Myrick.

“And without word from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, we can’t go forward anyway,” he added.

The county wants to build a 205-foot groin about 300 feet south of the last groin in order to trap sand in front of the public parking area, which it owns.

Groins are built perpendicular to the beach and catch sand that moves parallel to the shore.

At a public hearing in July 2009, critics of the project noted that trapping sand behind the groin would cut the supply that would naturally travel to beaches to the south and increase erosion elsewhere. Supporters of the project pointed out that there are already 23 groins on Pawleys Island and that one more wouldn’t have a significant impact.

The state allows construction of groins to protect public facilities on beaches with high rates of erosion. There is no actual criteria for erosion, and speakers at the hearing differed over whether the south end of Pawleys Island qualifies.

Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Natural Resources asked that the county’s permit request be denied. Fish and Wildlife sent staff to look at the south end, where they saw several species that are threatened or listed as “high priority” in the state’s wildlife plan. It is also a habitat for loggerhead sea turtles and seabeach amaranth, an endangered plant.

What they didn’t see, in May 2009, was beach erosion. “Service biologists noted that there was no indication of erosion and therefore no apparent need for the proposed project,” Tim Hall, field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife office in Charleston wrote.

If the permit wasn’t denied outright, Hall asked for a “consultation” under the Endangered Species Act.

If the county reactivates its application to the Corps, that’s where the process would start, officials said.

“We’re just kind of in a holding pattern,” said Koches, the Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

When the project design began in 2007, there was more urgency, Way said. The town of Pawleys Island put sand on the south end as part of a creek dredging project in 2008.

“Some of the immediacy dropped off a little bit,” Way said.

The county believes it will be less expensive to build a groin than to haul sand to rebuild dunes at the parking lot and rebuild the walkways, as it has done several times in the past.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis agreed the town’s beach nourishment project bought some time for the south end parking lot. “Eventually that groin will have to be built,” he said.

The town has approval for a beach nourishment project for the narrow south end, but the Corps of Engineers has never received funding for the project. Public access was a key ingredient in getting the project approved.

Otis has been involved with two coastal permits and understands the county’s situation. “There seems to be no single individual or source of responsibility to manage the various facets of a complicated permitting process,” Otis said.

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