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Pawleys Island: Promise of ruling sounds familiar to town officials

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Another Christmas has the town of Pawleys Island looking for a gift from the state Administrative Law Court, but only finding an empty stocking.

The town is looking for a ruling from Judge Phillip Lenski on an appeal to a state permit that would allow Georgetown County to build a 205-foot-long rock groin in front of the public parking lot on the island’s south end. Environmental groups want the judge to overturn the permit, either because it doesn’t meet state regulations or because Georgetown County failed to defend the permit. The town of Pawleys Island wants to intervene in the case to defend the permit.

Jana Shealey, the clerk of the Administrative Law Court, checked with Lenski’s office last week. “He’s really hoping to get it out soon,” she said. “He’s had several big cases he’s been working on.”

State law only allows construction of new groins where public facilities are threatened by erosion. With 80 parking spaces, the south end parking lot on Pawleys Island is the largest free public beach access in Georgetown County. It has been closed since Hurricane Matthew, first while equipment staged there while pushing up a new dune on the island and now because storm debris from the beach was piled in the parking area.

The county owns the parking area. It first applied for permits for a groin in 2008, saying it would be less expensive than hauling upland sand to build up the dune in front of the parking lot.

The permit is opposed by the Coastal Conservation League and the local chapters of the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters. They say the groin isn’t needed because the parking area isn’t threatened by erosion. Groins are built perpendicular to the beach to trap sand moving in the current that runs parallel to the beach. Opponents of the new groin say it will cause erosion farther down the shoreline and impact sea turtle nesting habitat.

Michael Corley, attorney for the S.C. Environmental Law Project, asked the Administrative Law Court for a summary judgement because Georgetown County failed to respond to filings in the case. Under the rules of procedure, the lack of an answer from the county is the same as an admission of the opponents’ claims. The state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management asked Lenski to hold a full hearing on the facts and allow its attorney to defend the permit.

“I will make my decision very quickly,” Lenski said at the end of the hearing in November 2013. A year later, Shealy said she expected a decision “shortly,” citing a number of large cases on the docket.

After the town asked for a status conference in October 2015, it got an email from the judge’s law clerk: “Judge Lenski wanted you to know that he plans on having his decision out early next week in this case.”

In May, Town Council asked Town Attorney David DuRant to contact the judge again. “We would respectfully request that you rule on these matters so that this case can be advanced,” DuRant wrote. He received no reply.

Last week, the council asked Woody DuRant, an attorney in his father’s firm, to contact the court again.

“I can appreciate the anxieties when a case has been pending awhile,” Shealy said. “He has had a good bit of turnover in the last three years.”

The town is now seeking state and federal permits for a project that will put 900,000 cubic yards of offshore sand on the island’s beach. It hopes to get a $6.5 million state grant to cover half the cost of the $13 million project. Adding another groin to the 23 already in place on the island “would help hold more sand,” said Steven Traynum, project manager for Coastal Science and Engineering, which is designing the project. One of the criteria for state funds available from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism is how long the beach nourishment project will last. Longevity is tied to the length of the project, Traynum said.

Another concern for the town is that the groin project required a construction easement from the owners of property south of the parking lot. The easement runs until 2022.

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