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Abandoned homes in SC waters could set legal precedent


At the eastern edge of Beaufort County, in a private community of a few hundred people, three now-ramshackle beachfront homes could set the tone for how South Carolina deals with many properties threatened by rapid erosion, rising seas and increasing storms.

Battered by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the three remaining Harbor Island homes jut with wires and fixtures. Pastel-colored siding has peeled off. Wooden decks have folded. There’s no electricity. And there’s no running water, unless you count the sea below the raised buildings when high tide swells.

Once worth millions, the homes at the height of a controversy on a small barrier island are appraised at $500 a piece. They’re “ocean homes, not oceanfront,” one lawsuit parsed.

For years, the question posed in a legal battle isn’t whether the homes need removal. That’s inevitable. The argument is over who’s responsible for demolishing them. And a decision isn’t expected any time soon.

In varying lawsuits starting in late-2018, the Harbor Island Owners Association has placed the onus on the state of South Carolina and six Harbor Island home owners, citing rules and regulations of both the association and the state. Some of the homes’ owners turned blame back on the association, largely asserting it did nothing to address rapid erosion that led to their residences ending up in the water.

Initially, the dispute involved six homes, but three of them have since been removed by their owners.

The state has been dismissed from the legal battle. But the push and pull between the HIOA and homeowners remains, and it is convoluted. Owners from five of the homes are still in the legal tangle.

Experts say the clash over who pays for and who manages the shore in front of dilapidated beachfront homes on private property affects more than Harbor Island. It serves as the poster child as sea levels rise, erosion eats away shorelines and storms increasingly pummel precariously located houses. All while state regulators continue to struggle with how to deal with it in a state where everyone wants to live along the beach.

“I do believe what we’re seeing on Harbor will happen in other private communities along our coastline,” said Emily Cedzo, a senior program director at the Coastal Conservation League. “It’s just a matter of time.”

The entrance to the gated, private community of Harbor Island, a barrier island bounded by the Harbor River, top and Hunting Island (not pictured) to the west as photographed on Dec. 6, 2022. Drew Martin

Residents balk at costly fix

Harbor Island has been noticeably eroding for about 20 years, but no definitive cause has ever been identified. But what is definitive is the number of residents who do not want to pay to protect a neighbor’s beachfront home.

Private communities, unlike public ones, cannot leverage state or federal funds for projects to widen the shoreline, otherwise known as renourishment, unless they agree to create public access, Cedzo said.

The cost of rebuilding Harbor Island’s shoreline was estimated in 2011 to range from $570,000 to $5 million. It’s money most residents weren’t willing to pony up.

In a 2011 survey by the community’s Environmental Stewardship Committee, about 92% of 237 respondents knew about the beach’s erosion and nearly 80% balked at renourishment as a solution. Also, about 79% said they’d be willing to pay nothing to finance a renourishment project.

By December that year, the HIOA said it would “not engage in any beach renourishment project” and that the HIOA would not “seek government permits for beach projects except for its own property, and then only after approval by the Board of Directors.”

This left the onus of beach management on the homeowners. And when tropical storms increased and the island experienced abnormally high “king” tides in 2015, the state environmental regulators granted permission to deploy hundreds of sandbags to offset erosion, according to Island Packet reporting. Some residents also placed experimental barriers called wave dissipation systems in an attempt to stymie erosion.

However, those structures were later ordered removed by a federal judge over concerns that they would impede sea turtle nesting, according to the Island Packet article. It left Harbor Island with no solution to its rapid erosion.

Rob Young, program director for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University, assessed in 2016 that nearby renourishment programs on Hunting Island could have sped up erosion at Harbor Island. Or the shrinking beach could be caused by sand being trapped in the creek delta that separates Harbor Island from Hunting Island, preventing the sand from flowing to the center of Harbor. Young’s third theory looked at the dynamics of the St. Helena Sound on the island and whether they’d contributed to erosion.

“Doing nothing is not a good choice,” Young wrote in the February 2016 assessment. “Doing nothing means that your shoreline condition will be shaped largely by individual property owners responding to coastal erosion in whatever method serves them best.”

Young took a strong stance that dealing with the properties one by one, as they are being handled today, was not his recommended course of action.

When Hurricane Matthew slammed Harbor Island in October 2016, the homeowners who had been vying for renourishment saw their nightmare unfold. Multiple houses were deemed uninhabitable from the storm’s damage and other erosion issues, some were repaired or moved and others were demolished. By November 2018, six beachfront homes were at the center of a lawsuit for lack of removal and their position below the mean high water mark.

Today, three houses remain a problem.

seven homes on North Harbor Drive on Harbor Island that the homeowners association is actively asking the state to to remove the structures located on the public waters of the state. The homes, unsafe to occupy, now sit seaward of the mean high tide mark caused by erosion, high tides, and past hurricanes and tropical storms. This map was produced prior to 116 North Harbor Drive which has since been demolished. Pictured are three of the S.C. Environmental Law Project South Carolina Department of Hea

But most of the community’s residents, despite the unsafe beach conditions posed by the abandoned houses, don’t want to subsidize a few crumbling homes that are now in the water of their private beach, said Ben Cunningham, a lawyer for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

Cedzo pointed to a recent and first renourishment project at Litchfield Beach — sandwiched between Pawleys Island and Huntington Beach State Park— to explain the costly implications of beachfront living. A single row of homes built along a narrow peninsula were in danger after erosion ate away the shoreline. Those homeowners had to pay “somewhere around $300,000 a piece” to pay for the renourishment project, Cedzo said.

Some turned around and sold their homes afterward, in fear the costly consequence would happen again.

On Debordieu, a private community in Georgetown County, property owners rely on a tiered payment system where those further from the shoreline pay less in annual beach management, Cedzo explained.

But for homeowners with houses on public beaches facing the ocean on places such as Folly Beach, they can leverage state and local funding to address beach erosion. There’s no worry about homeowners themselves shoveling hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain the shoreline.

Public beaches are managed by the state and local governments, which include paid staff who attend to maintenance and upkeep. That work is not expected from a private homeowners association, Cedzo said.

Even still, vying for exclusivity of a private property can usurp the complications and financial burden that comes with uncertainty of beach front living when the state and local governments aren’t involved in upkeep.

Cunningham referenced a 2011 South Carolina Supreme Court decision that…

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