This photo taken in October shows some beach erosion on the southern spit of Sea Island where several building lots appear to have been affected in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Curtis Compton /

Ruling allows Sea Island to proceed on home sites threatened by storms

A Fulton County judge ruled Thursday that the Sea Island Co. can build a sea wall to protect its beach, allowing eight super-expensive homes to be built on the “spit” of land that runs below the famed Cloister Hotel.

Conservationists, though, claim that Hurricane Matthew’s destructive winds and waves eroded so much of the beach and dunes that developing the fragile, tendril-like spit would be environmental folly.

The waves lapped at the dunes just below the home sites (cost: $3.5 million-$5.5 million) at high tide earlier this week. The beach had disappeared. Huge bags of sand, placed as a bulwark in front of the dunes as the hurricane approached, were underwater. Matthew’s waves carved away an upland swath further down the spit.

Nonetheless, Sea Island President Scott Steilen said the judge’s decision affirms his company’s plan to build a groin, or sea wall, and truck in thousands of tons of sand to protect the spit and the home sites from the vagaries of Mother Nature.

“The reality is that erosion will continue whether we do the project or not,” he said. “We will create a piece of property that’s going to be enjoyed by many for a long, long period of time.”

Jerry Baxter, a Fulton Superior Court judge, upheld an earlier administrative law judge’s ruling that the project’s “modest adverse impacts” don’t outweigh “Sea Island’s interest in protecting its valuable upland property.” Environmental groups and hundreds of coastal residents, who’ve fought the project for nearly three years, say the proposed 350-foot-long rock groin would keep endangered turtles from laying eggs and hatchlings from returning to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The project should be rethought because this storm demonstrated the volatility of the ‘spit’ and the risk that is assumed when we try to build homes in dynamic places that are subject to change at the whim of a heavy storm,” said Megan Desrosiers, the executive director of One Hundred Miles, a coastal conservation nonprofit.

Ever since Sea Island emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, developers have eyed the spit, a lovely, mile-long strip of sand, marsh and pine scrub favored by horseback riders, sea turtles and shorebirds.

A wood bridge and newly paved road lead to The Reserve at Sea Island, the well-manicured yet undeveloped home site overlooking the ocean on one side and the Black Banks River on the other. Eight lots have been carved from 8 acres; an additional 80 acres have been placed into a conservation easement never to be developed.

Homes, if built, will command a wonderful view and huge sales prices. The spit’s precariousness, though, makes the properties ineligible for federal flood insurance — the only such spot on Sea Island. Between 2003 and 2013, the spit’s beach shrank by 108 feet, a rate more than double the mean erosion rate, according to a Georgia Southern University geologist.

Hurricane Matthew clobbered coastal Georgia in early October with 100 mph winds and ocean surges approaching 10 feet. The Sea Island Co., with the storm fast approaching, beseeched the state’s Department of Natural Resources for “emergency” permission to place dozens of huge bags of sand in front of the dunes to protect the home sites. Permission was granted, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via an open records request.

Once the storm passed, the damage was evident. Large chunks of dune had disappeared. A broad swath of sand below the existing groin and used to renourish the beach was washed away. A portion of the beach access road disappeared, as did a 1,200-foot strip of upland beach and brush below the home sites.

The spit suffered “significant loss of beach and dunes,” a Sea Island engineering consultant acknowledged Nov. 2 to the DNR while requesting permission to truck in sand. Permission was not granted. Thursday’s court ruling, though, allows Sea Island to begin the laborious restoration of the spit, Steilen says. (The DNR didn’t return calls this week.)

“Fortunately, we had built up the dune system,” Steilen said. “Unfortunately, the storm took most of the dune system and vegetation with it out into the water.”

Sea Island will likely wait until next winter to construct the groin and bring in 120,000 cubic yards of sand to rebuild the beach. One final regulatory hurdle remains: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must sign off on the new groin. Critics, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, say the rock wall would worsen shoreline erosion, particularly in nearby St. Simons Island.

“We are disappointed in the decision, as the public interest requirement under (Georgia law) is explicitly intended to allow only activities that are in the best interest of the state,” Megan Hinkle, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

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