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Pawleys Island: Town may defend county’s permit for south end groin

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County won’t defend the state permit it received last year to build a rock groin on the beach in front of the parking lot it owns on the south end of Pawleys Island. The county started work in 2007 on the project to build a 205-foot-long groin to prevent erosion in front of the parking area and spent $108,500 on permits. But it will cost $75,000 to $100,000 to defend the permit from an appeal filed by environmental groups, according to Wesley Bryant, the county attorney.

“It didn’t seem like a viable option,” he said.

Pawleys Island Town Council, which supports the county project, met last month in a closed-door session with the town attorney to discuss intervening in the appeal. Mayor Bill Otis said he expects the issue to come up for a vote when council meets next week.

“My sense is that there are ways to do something like this where you don’t have to write an environmental lawyer a blank check,” Otis said.

Bryant said he was surprised by the cost of defending the permit. “That’s a specialized area of law,” he said, and the cost includes lawyers and experts.

The county says the groin is needed because the south end beach access is threatened by erosion. With 80 parking spaces, the south end is the largest free public beach access in Georgetown County. In the past, the county has received permits to haul upland sand to the rebuild the beach after storms. It says building a new groin south of the 24 groins that already trap sand along the island’s beachfront will be cheaper than hauling in sand.

The estimated cost to build the groin is $375,000, which includes adding 5,000 cubic yards of sand to the beach on either side of the structure.

The Coastal Conservation League and the local chapters of the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters appealed the decision by the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management to issue a permit for the project. Although state law allows construction of groins in order to protect public facilities from erosion, opponents say that the parking lot is not threatened by erosion. In addition, they say the groin will interrupt the natural flow of sand along the shore and cause erosion to the beaches south of the groin.

Otis called the opposition “short-sighted.”

“There is a provision in state law that requires any groin to be removed if it’s proved it causes downdrift erosion,” he said. “To date, no groin has been removed.”

One of the conditions attached to the groin permit is a requirement that the county monitor its impact. The state will also require a financial guarantee from the county to pay for additional beach nourishment or for the removal of the groin if there is harm to nearby beaches. Last year, the county set aside $145,000 for mitigation.

Otis said he is disappointed that the county isn’t willing to defend the permit. “Apparently beach access had dropped to the bottom of the county’s priority list,” he said.

The county applied for the groin permit in 2008. After a public hearing in 2009, state and federal regulators asked for more information about potential impacts on wildlife. Neither the county nor its consultant, Applied Technology and Management, responded and regulators said they were prepared to deny the permit. Instead, the county withdrew its application in January 2010 only to reapply a year later.

The town of Pawleys Island agreed to spend up to $20,000 for additional studies to complete the county’s application. The beach access is important to the town because it makes the narrow south end of the island eligible for federal beach nourishment funds. The Army Corps of Engineers approved an $8.9 million project for the town in 2006, but it was never funded by Congress.

Bryant said the decision not to fight for the permit in the courts was “basically a business decision.” Besides, the appeal is “based on the permitting procedure,” he said. “OCRM, as far as I know, is going to defend the permit process.”

Otis is skeptical.

“OCRM’s history is that they do a very cursory job of defending permits,” he said. “They depend on the applicant to carry the load.”

Michael Corley, staff attorney for the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which represents the groin opponents, said he isn’t sure what the state’s position will be. “I’m not sure they have any stake in defending the decision,” he said. “They have such limited resources.”

The appeal is the first filed since the state adopted tougher standards for issuing permits for groins.

Otis believes the permit is consistent with others issued to protect public facilities. And he thinks the cost of fighting the appeal won’t be as high as the county thinks.

“Should the town determine it’s going to take a position, we wouldn’t be taking a position that would cost the town $75,000,” Otis said.

“At least I don’t believe we would.”

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