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Pawleys groin project: Federal agency awaits data from county

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is waiting for more information from Georgetown County about the impact of a groin proposed for the south end of Pawleys Island before starting its review of the project, according to a letter sent to regulators this month.

And the review is critical to reviving the long-delayed permit process, regulators say.

The county first applied for federal and state permits in April 2009 to build a 205-foot-long rock and concrete groin in front of the south end parking lot. After a public hearing in July of that year, regulators asked for more information from the county.

A year after the hearing, the county learned the permit was on hold because the agencies had not received information about the impact of the project on plant and animal habitat, or answered concerns of an adjacent property owner or provided a beach nourishment plan. When the county’s engineering firm, Applied Technology and Management, turned in the additional information in December, the Corps of Engineers solicited new public comments.

Fish and Wildlife objected to the permit in 2009, and still has concerns about the impact on endangered species.

Staff visited the south end after the corps published a new public notice, and they question the need for the groin.

“It seems like it was accreting rather than eroding,” said Mark Leao, a biologist with the agency. “It was looking nice. The parking lot was safe.”

The town of Pawleys Island and property owners along the narrow south end wrote to support the project. The state Department of Natural Resources and environmental groups renewed their opposition to the groin. So did Robert Kühne, whose family owns the property between the county’s parking lot and Pawleys Inlet.

Property owners at Prince George, which is south of the inlet, filed objections in 2009.

Only one property owner sent in an objection during the new comment period.

The public notice from the Corps of Engineers said only new comments would be considered.

But Dan Burger, spokesman for Coastal Resources, said his agency will still consider comments from 2009.

But he said the agency “did not receive sufficient requests for a public hearing, nor a request from an elected official, so we will not be hosting one.”

Groins are built perpendicular to the shore to trap sand that moves in the current parallel to the beach. State law allows new groins as part of beach nourishment projects to protect public facilities threatened by erosion. The county plans to truck in 5,000 cubic yards of upland sand to fill in behind the groin.

With 81 parking spaces, the south end of Pawleys Island is the largest free beach access in Georgetown County. That access also makes the island eligible for federal and state funds for beach nourishment. The corps has approved a project for the south end, but it never got funding from Congress.

The county claims the groin, which would be south of 23 existing groins, is needed to reduce beach erosion in front of the parking lot.

In a letter sent to the permitting agencies a month before the permit was put back on public notice, Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis said the corps itself determined in 1994 that a new groin would stabilize the beach without cutting off the flow of sand to beaches farther south.

The S.C. Environmental Law Project wrote on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League and the local chapters of the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters to object to the permit.

Michael Corley, a staff attorney, said there is no evidence the groin won’t have a detrimental effect on the beach to the south of the structure.

The Department of Natural Resources resubmitted its 2009 letter, questioning the need for the groin and citing its potential impact on endangered or threatened plants and animals, including loggerhead sea turtles.

Fish and Wildlife told the corps it wants an updated analysis of the impact on the beach south of the proposed groin and complete descriptions of the existing beach sand and the upland sand that will be brought in.

Its review for compliance with the Endangered Species Act won’t start until Fish and Wildlife gets the information, Leao said. Then it has 135 days to issue an opinion.

Coastal Resources has told the county it won’t act on the permit application until the endangered species review is complete.

Leao said Fish and Wildlife staff would like to meet with the county and work out a way to protect the parking lot without impacting wildlife.

“We’re kind of in standby waiting for information,” Leao said.

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