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Pawleys Island: New south end groin faces legal challenge

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A permit to allow Georgetown County to build a 205-foot-long rock groin at the public parking lot on the south end of Pawleys Island will likely be challenged in court.

The state office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management gave notice last week that it planned to issue the permit. Groups that oppose the project have until Sept. 20 to appeal.

“There will definitely be an appeal,” said Amy Armstrong, head of the S.C. Environmental Law Project. She filed objections to the permit on behalf of the local Sierra Club and League of Women Voters chapters and the Coastal Conservation League. The Sierra Club decided it will appeal. The other groups were still weighing their options this week.

The county says the groin is necessary to protect the parking area from erosion. It’s the largest free beachfront parking area in the county with 80 spaces. The public access is also important to the town of Pawleys Island, which hopes that Congress will eventually fund an $8.9 million beach nourishment project for the island’s narrow south end that was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2006. Public access is a condition of that project.

The state allows construction of new groins only where there is a danger of erosion damage to public facilities and only if it won’t cause damage to the nearby shoreline. Environmental groups say the new Pawleys groin will impact adjacent beaches and that the parking area is not threatened by erosion.

“The idea that it’s not going to cause downdrift impact is just contrary to all the scientific information,” Armstrong said. “I’m not talking about engineers and consultants. I’m talking about scientists that study these things.”

Groins are built perpendicular to the beach to trap sand that moves in the current parallel to the shore.

The county proposes to add 5,000 cubic yards of upland sand to the beach as part of the groin project. Among the conditions attached to the permit, Coastal Resources requires that the sand be brought in before or during groin construction.

The permit requires the county to survey existing conditions on the beach at least 30 days before work begins to establish baseline data to use in assessing the impact of the project. After completion, the county will have to monitor conditions at 12 locations between Springs Avenue and DeBordieu quarterly for the first year, then twice a year for the next two years. Two annual reports are required after that.

If the erosion rate south of the groin increases for three consecutive quarters or in two consecutive semi-annual reports, Coastal Resources will require the county to either reconfigure the groin, remove it or renourish the beach that’s affected.

County Council voted last month to set aside $145,000 in the budget to guarantee financing for any mitigation. The groin project is expected to cost $475,000.

Armstrong doesn’t believe the state will ever require the county to remove the groin even if monitoring shows erosion at nearby beaches. Despite the conditions attached to the permit, she said the county could still claim downdrift erosion was not caused by the groin.

“Who bears the burden of proving this stuff?” Armstrong said. If it’s the public-interest groups, “then we’ll have to get into long, drawn-out litigation.”

This will be the first challenge to a groin permit since the state adopted the current criteria. A permit for groins at Hunting Island State Park was opposed by environmental groups, but didn’t go to court. A permit for groins as part of a beach nourishment project at DeBordieu was approved by Coastal Resources and upheld by the board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

However, property owners at DeBordieu dropped the groins rather than face a legal challenge from the Baruch Foundation and environmental groups.

The town of Pawleys Island helped fund environmental assessments for the county’s permit application and negotiated an easement with owners of property south of the parking lot to allow construction of the groin. Mayor Bill Otis said he wasn’t surprised that the permit faces an appeal.

He noted that some of the opposition to the project comes from property owners in Prince George and DeBordieu.

“If there is a legal challenge, will those people who help fund it that live in gated communities be willing to open up their beach to the public?” Otis asked.

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