Wild Dunes renourishment plan steeped in controversy

ISLE OF PALMS — Many residents say the us-versus-them tension between Wild Dunes residents and the rest of the city were put to rest years ago, but some fear the multimillion-dollar controversy over beach renourishment is dredging up those old feelings.

As the Atlantic Ocean continues to threaten pricey beachfront real estate in the gated Wild Dunes community, and the debate rages over who should help foot the bill for efforts to stop the erosion, City Council took its first step Tuesday toward finding a solution that might be palatable to both sides.

Council voted to start the permitting process for an offshore-dredging project that would replenish the disappearing sand.

City Administrator Linda Lovvorn Tucker estimated that the permit would cost anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 dollars.

Offshore dredging is expected to cost hundreds of thousands more and Wild Dunes residents cannot bear the cost alone.

Island resident Bev Ballow said many people on the island wouldn't be happy with a decision that included funding from Isle of Palms tax revenues.

"It would be happening over a lot of dead bodies as long as current regulations require there to be public access for public money and Wild Dunes refuses to allow general public access," Ballow said.

Wild Dunes resident John Herron said people farthest from the Wild Dunes beach may feel they should pay nothing.

"I think they are wrong," Herron said.

The resort community of Wild Dunes draws tourism and the whole city benefits from that, he said.

"We've needed this kind of commitment from the city for a long time," he said.

A committee of residents, state and city officials have met for the past six months to develop a long-term beach management plan that would guide the city through the island's anticipated erosion episodes. The beach at both Dewees and Breach inlets are the most susceptible to natural erosion cycles. Currently Wild Dunes suffers from the worst erosion.

A consultant, Chris Jones, a coastal engineer, who presented the committee's plan and his recommendations Tuesday, said working out a funding formula for beach renourishment would be the contentious issue.

"People don't want to pay for someone else's problem," Jones said.

Jones said Isle of Palms has a unique erosion problem in that offshore shoals come in, causing short-term erosion until they attach to the main beach, bringing more sand to the barrier island.

Jones recommended that the city keep permits ready to go to manage future shoals because they can't predict where the next will occur.

Currently, the city is awaiting approval of its local beach-management plan that would make public areas of the island eligible for state beach renourishment funding. But Jones said the city should also look at how they use accommodation tax revenues generated by Wild Dunes. Jones said at least some of that money should be reinvested in that area, if there is no change in public access.

If the city decides to spend more money, that increase should be tied to increased access to the beach, Jones said.

"I know that's a tough one to swallow on this island and that is the nut of the problem that we have," Jones said.

Though the Long-Term Beach Management Plan was meant to center on future erosion, the committee discussed problems at Wild Dunes in detail. Jones said that if the offshore dredging-permit process began now, it would be at least one year before sand could be pumped to the beach.

Large sandbags that have been protecting some oceanfront property must be removed by Nov. 30, or property owners will face fines from the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

Mayor Mike Sottile said he hoped the state would look at Tuesday's actions in a positive light and reconsider the deadline.

"We are all in this together, we are all one community regardless of where we live," he said. "This is a city problem, not just a Wild Dunes problem."

Isle of Palms erosion problem

-- The location of many oceanfront buildings at the east end of the island is poor and erosion there was foreseeable.

-- Reliance on the state's 40-year setback line for development along the eastern unstabilized inlet erosion zone does not protect buildings from erosion.

-- Current oceanfront property owners did not cause the erosion problems.

-- Emergency sandbagging is a temporary way to provide limited protection to buildings threatened by erosion.

-- All beach management alternatives impose costs on oceanfront property owners and the community at large.

-- The lack of public beach access at Wild Dunes is likely to be the greatest impediment to Isle of Palms residents agreeing to spend city money on beach renourishment.

-- Under current state law, the lack of public beach access at Wild Dunes prohibits spending state beach renourishment funds there.

-- The likelihood of receiving federal beach renourishment funds for the east end of the island is believed to be remote, and attempts to do so will be time-consuming and costly.

-- Doing nothing could result in buildings collapsing onto the beach, and a variety of associated problems.

-- Attempts to forcibly remove buildings that encroach onto the beach would likely be tied up in court for years.

-- Continued erosion along the eastern end of the island could lead to reduced property values, reduced property taxes, reduced rental income, and reduced accommodations-tax revenues.

-- Source: Isle of Palms' Long-Term Beach Management Plan