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Pawleys Island: Town wary of erosion’s impact on tourism

By Chaerles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Evans Holland bought his house on the south end of Pawleys Island in 1962. In 1972, he built a seawall along the beach. “I saw it for the first time this year,” he said.

Concern about the accelerating pace of erosion and the promise of state funds have the town preparing plans to put additional sand on the island’s beachfront. The town estimates it lost 100,000 cubic yards of sand from the beach and dunes due to storms last October. An estimate from the Army Corps of Engineers put the cost of replacing that sand at $2.8 million.

The town pushed up sand from the beach to create new dunes this winter. Subsequent storms and high tides washed that away in some places. Town officials fear the lack of a dry sand beach at high tide this summer will impact the vacation home rentals. About 65 percent of the island’s homes are rented, generating $13.5 million in revenue. “For many of these families, that income is critical,” said Town Council Member Rocky Holliday, who chairs a 10-member committee that began work this week to develop a beach nourishment plan.

The General Assembly included $30 million in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism budget to repair beaches after last year’s storms. Mayor Bill Otis said he was told that the agency will be looking for “shovel ready” projects when it starts deciding how to apportion the money later this year. “They’ve said those who are closer to a project will receive funding,” Otis said. “We’ve got to keep moving.”

The town’s last major beach nourishment project was completed in March 1999 at a cost of $1.6 million. It added about 270,000 cubic yards of sand to the front beach. Because state funds for beach nourishment are tied to public beach access, private funds were used to pay for work in the midsection of the 3.4-mile long island, where there is no public access. The beach committee is made up of property owners in each part of the island, both oceanfront and back row. Once the town adopts a plan, the committee is expected to help build support among other owners. Along with Holliday and Holland, Fred Collins, Glenn Cox, Tucker Dieter, Brian Henry, Alan Hill, Johnny Joseph, Bill Kinney and Henry Thomas serve on the committee.

“It’s a very, very complicated issue,” Holliday said, but the town has already hired Coastal Science and Engineering to develop an ideal beach profile for Pawleys Island and some options for achieving that. The firm will present its findings next month.

Permits and funds are the key, Kinney said. “We can’t go anywhere without that.”

While the town asked the state earlier this year for $3 million to repair erosion damage to the island’s beach, Otis believes it’s more likely the state will only fund a portion of the work. The Corps of Engineers estimate for repairing storm damage along the entire coast was $96.7 million. “They’re not talking about fully funding any project,” he said.

But once this project is done, the town hopes to have what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will consider an “engineered beach,” one that will be eligible for funding in the wake of any future disasters. “It’s one of the only sources of funding,” Holliday said.

As for permits, Otis said it took five months to get state and federal permits to perform the beach scraping. Those were emergency permits, he noted.

Before the October storms, the town was planning to repair the 24 rock and concrete groins that trap sand along the island from Pawleys Pier to the south end. They were last repaired during the 1999 project. Coastal Science had suggested extending some of the groins, but the permit process would be more extensive than repairing them.

“When our groins are in good shape, they work really well,” Holliday said. “We’ve kind of been living on borrowed time.” The problem is there isn’t enough sand in the island’s beach-dune system, something Coastal Science reported in a 2014 study. It said the southern third of the island needed another 350,000 cubic yards to have a “minimum healthy beach.” “That’s why sand scraping doesn’t work,” Holliday said. The beach profile is flat rather than sloped, so there is no dry beach at high tide.

“The tide is still coming in, and it’s coming in too far,” Holliday said.

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