Historic coastal resort in hot water with SC neighbors. Their beach is washing away

When construction crews pumped 1 million cubic yards of sand on Pawleys Island two years ago, the effort widened the island’s beach for tourists – but it came at the expense of the town’s neighbors down the coast.

That’s the accusation in recent lawsuits that claim the Pawleys Island renourishment project, launched to build up the eroding public beach, has caused massive erosion on the seashore south of the historic resort.

The lawsuits, filed in Georgetown County, blame the town, a prominent coastal engineering firm and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for their roles in construction of a project the suits say was poorly thought out.

“It just makes me ill to think about it,’ said Claudius “Bud” Watts IV, who owns two lots along the beach at Prince George, a sliver of oceanfront just south of Pawleys Island.

The erosion, described as unprecedented, should be of interest to everyone who owns property or visits the South Carolina seashore, said Watts, who sued the town May 26. If not properly studied, beach renourishment projects can destabilize beaches down the coast, despite their intent to build up beaches, critics say.

“My complaint is this project was undertaken without any consideration of what was going to happen down drift,’’ Watts said. “I don’t want this to happen to somebody else in the future.’’

Since the Pawleys Island project was completed in 2020, Watts said the dunes that buffer his property from the ocean have washed away. All told, five acres of beach have been lost, according to his lawsuit. Parts of an expansive maritime forest Watts protected from development in 2015 are disappearing, his suit says.

One coastal geologist, who studies development along beaches of the Carolinas, said he’s never seen erosion as significant as what is occurring at Prince George.

“The change just since last December is dramatic,’’ Western Carolina University researcher Rob Young said. “The beach there is just melting away. It’s the fastest rate of land loss and shoreline change I’ve seen in my career.’’

Threats to property at Prince George are so significant that a rock wall has been installed to repel the encroaching ocean. Without the rock wall, even more of his land would have vanished, said Watts, a software adviser and son of former Citadel military college president Claudius Watts III.

Prince George, a small, high-end development, is sandwiched between Pawleys Island and Debordieu Colony between U.S. 17 and the ocean in Georgetown County. The area is about 25 miles south of Myrtle Beach. Almost two dozen houses and lots are on the oceanfront at Prince George, which is just across a tidal creek from Pawleys.

The erosion at Prince George is occurring for several, interrelated reasons, critics say. The volume of sand pumped on Pawleys Island is unprecedented, about five times larger than any amount ever applied on Pawleys beaches to widen them.

And the extra sand, while widening the Pawleys seashore, is causing the mouth of the creek separating Pawleys from Prince George to rapidly move south, the lawsuits say.

As the creek moves, it is cutting into Prince George, which takes up the extreme upper end of Debidue Island.

Between April 2021 and early 2022, the inlet moved about 300 feet south, far faster than it would under natural conditions, according to the lawsuit Watts filed. The creek would normally shift at a rate of 18 to 40 feet per year, his suit says.

A second lawsuit, filed Monday by about two dozen of Watts’ neighbors, makes similar allegations, emphasizing the impact erosion is having on land where a key road is located.

Both lawsuits ask that the inlet be restored to lessen erosion of their property and that they have the freedom to “take reasonably necessary actions to protect their property.’’ The suits do not say what those actions would be, but seawalls, which are banned in South Carolina, are among ways to protect property from the ocean.

The suits also seek compensation for what they say are diminished property values and expenses the landowners have incurred, as well as punitive damages. The suits do not cite specific amounts but, if successful, the state and town could face hefty costs.

Where was DHEC?

How the Pawleys Island renourishment project gained approval is a big question for property owners at Prince George.

In 2018, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s coastal division approved the renourishment to help widen the public beach at Pawleys Island and buffer houses along the town’s oceanfront.

The project, completed in 2020, involved pumping sand on the beach between the island’s mid-section and Pawley’s southern tip, an area that includes a popular public park beyond the last houses on the oceanfront.

Before the Pawleys project was approved, a prominent consulting firm that examined how to do the work warned that the beach widening should be done carefully because of its potential impacts down the seashore.

Coastal Science and Engineering, which has designed beach renourishment projects in South Carolina since the 1980s, said a large beach widening project would cause the inlet to shift and affect beachfront property at Prince George on Debidue Island. The firm said a plan to manage the inlet was needed, according to documents filed with the Watts’ lawsuit.

But no plan was ever put in place, according to a written statement by Francis Joseph Way, a coastal engineer who examined the issue at the request of Watts’ lawyers.

DHEC approved the project without the inlet protection plan, thus shirking its responsibility to weigh the full environmental impact of the project on other land, property owners allege.

“Why did DHEC so flagrantly ignore the law and their own policies?’’ Watts asked. “Were they pressured or were they simply incompetent to the task?’’

Officials from DHEC said the agency thoroughly studied the project in 2018.

“DHEC approved a beach renourishment permit issued to the town of Pawleys Island after a thorough evaluation and confirming compliance with all regulatory requirements,’’ the agency said Tuesday. “All potential impacts of the beach renourishment project were evaluated during the review process.’’

Columbia consultant Tim Kana, whose engineering firm is one of the parties sued by Watts over the renourishment, agreed that the inlet between Pawleys Island and Prince George is moving. But Kana, who heads Coastal Science and Engineering, said it’s too early to say if the Pawleys Island renourishment project has worsened erosion at Prince George.

“Nobody knows for certain,’’ Kana said. “It’s an unstable inlet. It’s been migrating historically to the south.’’

Even so, Kana said establishing an inlet management zone could be done by digging a new inlet and closing the natural inlet. The new inlet would be farther away from Prince George, thus diminishing erosion that is cutting into the beach there.

It “would be a fairly inexpensive solution,’’ Kana said. “We thought it could be a win-win for both the Pawleys community and the Prince George community. But nobody wanted to act on it, for a lack of money or whatever reason.’’

A beach renourishment project at Pawleys Island is eroding the beach at nearby Prince George, just down the coast in Georgetown County, a lawsuit says. This pictures shows Prince George from the southern spit at Pawleys Island.
A beach renourishment project at Pawleys Island is eroding the beach at nearby Prince George, just down the coast in Georgetown County, a lawsuit says. This pictures shows Prince George from the southern spit at Pawleys Island.

Historic beach

Pawleys Island Mayor Brian Henry did not respond to questions from The State about the concerns at Prince George.

But the town’s renourishment project, a $14 million effort paid for with state and local money, was important to Pawleys Island for multiple reasons.

At a time of sea level rise and more intense hurricanes, putting more sand on the eroding beach would buffer millions of dollars worth of private homes on the island’s narrow southern end. Before the project, water at times washed near the base of homes in that area.

The south end of the island is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes because it is so skinny. During Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the powerful storm cut the southern end in half, destroying some houses and creating an inlet that was later filled back in.

Although critics question spending public money to protect private homes that many say were built too close to the ocean, widening the beach also gives room for summertime vacationers who descend on the seashore.

Pawleys Island is one of the most popular small beach towns in the state and one of the oldest summer resorts on the East Coast. Rice planters first established houses on Pawleys in the 1700s as they sought to escape mosquitoes and summer heat on the mainland. The island today is composed mostly of beach houses used by families for generations. The island has historically been described as “arrogantly shabby.’’

On any given summer weekend, the beach is filled with tourists — many from across the Carolinas and Georgia — strolling the shore or sitting on the sand.

Unlike Prince George and other coastal communities that developed later, Pawleys is easily accessible to the public because it does not contain guard gates that prevent people from visiting. The public park beyond the last homes on the island’s extreme south end is typically packed with the cars of people visiting the beach or fishing in the creek behind the spit.

Sam Queen, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said renourishment projects like the one at Pawleys help tourism, an anchor of the state’s economy. Tourism brings in some $24 billion in revenues annually, the majority of it from coastal visitors. PRT is among the government agencies sued over the Pawleys Island renourishment.

The beach “is a huge economic driver for the state,’’ she said. “Making sure that we have a beach to continue offering our visitors is what makes us invested in the importance of beach renourishment.’’

Kana said there are multiple reasons the public gains when a renourishment project is done like the one at Pawleys Island.

“The public benefits are on the environmental side, the shore protection side, the damage reduction side, all of these things,’’ Kana said. “No other shore protection method I’m aware of can do all those things.’’

Downstream woes

The Pawleys Island renourishment dust-up is occurring at a time when other beach widening projects are underway on the state’s northern coast — and amid questions about how some projects will affect nearby inlets and beaches downstream.

One of those is on the extreme southern end of the Debordieu community, a high-end gated resort on Debidue Island that is several miles down the beach from Prince George.

The privately funded renourishment project has dramatically widened the beach in an area where waves crashed against an aging seawall. The threat from the ocean was so substantial that some property owners installed sandbags illegally behind the seawall to protect their homes before the renourishment project began earlier this year. DHEC staff tried to have the sandbag walls removed, but the department’s board backed the property owners.

Now, property owners are praising the excess sand that has buried the timber seawall and made for an expansive beach.

“In the last 10 years, you couldn’t go on the beach except for mid to low tide,’’ Atlanta resident Brett Butler said as he sat on the newly widened shore at Debordieu earlier this month.

Butler, whose family was not involved in the illegal sandbag installation, said the way the renourishment project is designed will make a difference at Debordieu. The southern end of the resort island has a high erosion rate, and past renourishment projects have washed away in just a few years. But this time, property owners received permission to install walls known as groins that engineers say will trap the sand and hold the beach in place longer.

“I think it’s going to transform Debordieu; it’s going to bring it back to what it always was,’’ Butler said of the recent project.

But while the project at Debordieu is smaller than the one at Pawleys near Prince George, there is a possible downside.

The Debordieu project has the potential to erode the beach at the University of South Carolina’s Baruch Marine Laboratory, just to the south, Western Carolina’s Young said.

The Baruch lab is at North Inlet, an almost pristine area of creeks, salt marshes and high ground that attracts an array of wildlife species. Cutting edge research, such as how sea level rise is affecting the inlet’s salt marshes, is underway. Any changes from upstream could affect research projects, scientists have said.

Groins at Debordieu should help keep the sand in place longer, Young said. But at some point, they could become exposed and prevent sand from moving past Debordieu to the Baruch property, he said.

“The groins are problematic, especially over the long run,’’ Young said. “Someday those folks in Debordieu are going to get tired of paying for beach nourishment. Or they will run out of sand or they won’t be able to do it as frequently. Then we’re going so see the erosion on the Baruch property go up.’’

Concerns also have been raised over a project this summer on the southern end of Litchfield Beach.

Litchfield’s southern spit, just across an inlet on Pawleys Island’s north end, was developed heavily after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and has begun to erode. The erosion has been so severe that some property owners there erected illegal seawalls to repel the waves, only to be ordered to remove them by DHEC.

Their privately funded renourishment project, which also is smaller than the one near Prince George, is the only way some property owners believe they can protect their homes.

But like other projects, there is a fear that pumping too much sand on the Litchfield spit could clog an inlet separating southern Litchfield from the north end of Pawleys Island.

The Coastal Observer said in a 2020 story that some homeowners in the area “are concerned that sand from a large-scale renourishment could wash into Midway Creek, which already is filling with sand.’’

Renourishment supporters say the Debordieu and south Litchfield projects are nothing to worry about. Kana said the inlet below the south Litchfield project, for instance, already is fortified with a structure to keep it from moving. The Debordieu project has a mitigation plan to address any problems downstream.

Overall, renourishment has been occurring in South Carolina for at least the past four decades, with millions of dollars in public money spent. Sometimes, problems have cropped up, but many times the projects have been done with few issues. Renourishment has been viewed as a better alternative to protecting beachfront property than seawalls, which make erosion worse when washed by waves.

Dying oaks, threatened road

Regardless of what may happen as a result of the Debordieu and south Litchfield projects, the effects of the Pawleys Island renourishment in 2020 are already obvious at Prince George, said Watts and Cody Lenhardt, an attorney representing Watts’ neighbors.

Not only are lots at Prince George washing away, but so is the land near the only road that connects the beachfront to U.S. 17. Boulders installed to protect the road have done the job so far, but the water is rising — as are concerns, Lenhardt said.

Lenhardt, who filed the second lawsuit Monday, said the erosion is making Prince George more vulnerable to hurricane damage if major storms slam the state this summer and fall.

“We are getting ready to head back into another predicted, very active storm season, and we’ve lost a significant portion of primary oceanfront sand dunes,’’ Lenhardt said. “That is the first wall of defense against these storm systems.’’

The Prince George property was undeveloped for years, thought to be little more than a wide spot between Pawleys Island and the exclusive Debordieu Colony resort just down the beach. But the development potential of Prince George was gradually realized as people continued looking for vacation spots near the ocean.

In the mid-1980s, the property’s owners sold the undeveloped land for development, but the plan to build condominiums fell through and the federal government eventually took control of the nearly 2,000-acre tract.

Later, a private development group put up $10.5 million for the University of South Carolina Development Foundation to buy the land, much of which was to be left undeveloped and used for scientific research. Among the land’s features were 350 species of plants, including majestic live oak trees.

As part of that deal, however, developers carved out 600 acres so a small upscale community could be built on the Prince George tract, with a handful of homes to be erected on the oceanfront between Pawleys Island and Debordieu Colony to the south.

Then in 2013, the USC Development Foundation began discussing selling the remaining land for development, sparking criticism from environmentalists over the university’s apparent change of course away from land protection.

But in 2015, a limited liability corporation headed by Watts, called PG Preservation, said it was buying the undeveloped property and would protect it as a nature preserve.

Oceanfront homes built before Watts agreed to protect the more than 1,000 acres acres include one he owns.

Watts’ lawsuit said that while erosion is eating away at private property within the Prince George tract, it also is destroying some of the natural maritime forest that PG Properties had agreed to preserve from future development.

The erosion is “washing away huge, decades-old dunes, destroying decades-old live oak trees landward of the dunes, and washing away previously high ground behind the dunes,’’ the lawsuit said. “This severe erosion continues at an unprecedented rate.’’

A beach renourishment project at Pawleys Island is eroding the beach at nearby Prince George, just down the coast in Georgetown County, a lawsuit says. This pictures shows Prince George from the southern spit at Pawleys Island. A road also is threatened and is being protected by rocks from the water.
A beach renourishment project at Pawleys Island is eroding the beach at nearby Prince George, just down the coast in Georgetown County, a lawsuit says. This pictures shows Prince George from the southern spit at Pawleys Island. A road also is threatened and is being protected by rocks from the water.