South Carolina's legislature has passed a new law that will hold the line restricting beachfront construction fixed, even if beaches themselves get wider from natural accretion or artificial beach replenishment. The new law, Senate Bill 139, passed unanimously in the state Senate (39-0) and House (114-0), but not before a dramatic sideshow involving a controversial proposed development in the gated community of Kiawah Island, on a slender patch of beach called "Captain Sam's Spit."

Captain Sam's Spit, Kiawah Island, SC
Google Earth satellite imagery shows Captain Sam's Spit, a barrier island peninsula in the gated community of Kiawah Island, South Carolina, where developers intend to construct a new road and 25 new homes.
Google Earth satellite imagery shows "Captain Sam's Spit," a slender barrier island peninsula where developers intend to construct a new road and 25 new homes.

The State (Columbia, S.C.) has a report on the new shoreline law here (see: "Rising seas put brakes on developers’ march toward the ocean," by Sammy Fretwell). "State law has allowed the Department of Health and Environmental Control to move an imaginary line that restricts development toward the ocean when beaches build up—whether naturally or artificially through renourishment projects," the paper explained. "The agency resets the line every eight to 10 years and can also move it landward when beaches erode. The new law freezes the line from ever being moved seaward after Dec. 31, 2017."

But the legislation came at an awkward time for developers on Kiawah Island, an exclusive gated community and golf resort south of Charleston. Kiawah Partners ("KP"), which calls itself "the direct descendant of Kiawah Island’s original master planner," has been battling environmentalists for years over a proposal to build a new road and 50 new homes on Captain Sam's Spit, a small promontory of sand linked to the mainland by a narrow neck that is subject, depending on Mother Nature, to widening and narrowing as the ocean adds or subtracts sand from the shore. Court decisions in the case have threatened the plan in the past—see, for example, this November report in the Charleston City Paper ("Battle over Captain Sam’s Spit grows as coastline shrinks," by Dustin Waters). But the latest court battles have left the project alive, as the Charleston Post and Courier reported in March (see: "Capt. Sam’s Spit road gets court go-ahead; conservation groups plan to appeal," by Bo Peterson).

With the new law in place, Kiawah Partners' top execs explained their position concerning Captain Sam's Spit in an editorial in the Post and Courier (see: "The real story about Captain Sam’s Spit," by Patrick Melton, Jordan Phillips, Chris Randolph, and Will Culp). According to the KP leadership team, "OCRM [the state's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management] classifies Kiawah Island in its 'State of the Beaches Report' as 'one of the most stable barrier islands in the state' and the beach on the southwestern end has continuously accreted for more than 60 years. Depending on location, the accretion of the beach ranges from 6 to 15 feet per year. Future homes on the Captain Sam's beachside will equal, and in many instances exceed, the voluntary setback distance of other oceanfront property on Kiawah, which, when compared to other coastal communities, already well surpasses state requirements. The interior and backside of Captain Sam’s is highly vegetated with mature maritime vegetation. In other words, it is quite similar to the rest of Kiawah. Wildlife continues to live in harmony with us. Deer and bobcat still grace our lawns and common property; osprey, eagles and thousands of other birds fly above our coastline; dolphins continue to thrive and feed in the Kiawah River. It will be no different at Captain Sam’s."

Under the new law, the Kiawah developers will gain the benefit of any further accretion at Captain Sam's Spit before the development-line freeze takes effect, possibly gaining a few feet of elbow room for their proposed road and building lots. But the developers' gain in terms of roads and frontage may come at the price of some burned bridges with legislators. In the aftermath of the House vote, legislators were reportedly less concerned with rising sea levels than with a rising tide of bad manners on the part of the Kiawah team's lobbyists. The Post and Courier reports, "A lobbyist for Kiawah Partners 'verbally attacked' a Charleston legislator at the close of a Judiciary committee hearing in May amid debate over development of Capt. Sam’s Spit on Kiawah Island, according to three lawmakers" (See: "‘Verbal attack’ by Kiawah lobbyist over Capt. Sam’s bill shook legislators, they say," by Bo Petersen). The lobbyist, Dwight Drake, defended his behavior to the paper, saying; “I dealt with Rep. McCoy in the same way I always deal with people who have told me they are going to do one thing and then do another. I dealt with him directly.” But that's not how lawmakers saw it, according to the Post and Courier: "Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, who described fellow members as shaken, said he’s seen and heard of instances before where people became very upset, but nothing matched this encounter."