The signs just above the high tide line at Kiawah Island's Beachwalker County Park have a simple message for all visitors: "Please, Keep Off Dunes." Just down the beach, a long row of plastic markers address the masses with more ominous language, explaining that it's a nesting ground for two threatened species of birds, Least Terns and Wilson's Plovers. "Area Closed," the signs say. "Our coastal birds are disappearing, mainly due to disturbance from humans and dogs."
This rugged, windswept area at Kiawah's southern terminus, known as Captain Sam's Spit, has been undisturbed for centuries, apart from the occasional shipwreck, fishing charter, or couple taking a sunset stroll (and the waters that tend to wash it away, at least once a century). But more permanent change may soon be underway at the Spit, following a February 27 ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court that reversed their earlier decision to deny Kiawah Development Partners (KDP) a permit to install a 2,513-foot long seawall along the narrow peninsula's "back beach" shoreline.
That inland sandy stretch is one of the world's best places to watch bottlenose dolphins strand feed. Working together, they force schools of mullet onto the sand and then beach themselves to feast. The Spit's interior harbors a maritime forest, marsh, and plenty of sand, crisscrossed with deer paths. It's also home to bobcats and one of the state's densest populations of song and shorebirds.
Connecting this 150-acre teardrop-shaped "island" to the rest of Kiawah is a narrow bridge of land, spanning just 200 feet between the river and the Atlantic Ocean. There are no trees here in this shifting sand — just a handful of the biggest dunes in the Lowcountry and their resident cacti, yucca, and wildflowers. That impermanent geography presents a challenge to KDP, the land's owners, who are now hoping to put a neighborhood on what is essentially a slow-moving sandbar.
To build the 50 houses that they've planned for the Spit's highest, driest 20 acres, they'll need an access road, built atop the very dunes that the aforementioned signs currently protect from the damage of human footsteps. And to protect that road from washing away as it sits atop the sand, they will need a half-mile-long wall along the river to stop the natural erosion process on the Spit's inside shore. That means that the back beach will literally be no more; it'll be replaced with metal and concrete.
Plenty of people are unhappy about that vision of the future for Captain Sam's Spit. At least one opponent says he's willing to give his life to stop it.
"They swung us quite a curve on that one, didn't they?" says Sidi Limehouse, leaning back in the seat of his tractor on the fields he tends at his Rosebank Farms, just outside Kiawah's gates.
Limehouse is referring to the recent state Supreme Court ruling. After the Court ruled 4-1 in favor of a Department of Health and Environmental control against the construction of a back beach seawall on Sam's Spit, the proposed project's developers appealed the decision, and the Court spent a year re-reviewing the case. The Supreme Court's recent 3-2 vote in favor of granting the permit overturns their initial ruling on the grounds that DHEC was wrong to consider the impact of future homes when they initially denied the permit for the wall.
That news dropped like a hammer on 74-year-old Limehouse, who grew up visiting the back beach along the Kiawah River. During the five-year fight since Kiawah Development Partners first sought the wall permit, Limehouse founded the Friends of the Kiawah River and has led hundreds of people out to the Spit to see firsthand its ecological importance.
"You've got to go there and stand on it and be there to understand," Limehouse says. "I remember being five or six years old and jumping around in the water there, fishing, crabbing, messing around. My contention is that that's a public beach. They've put up these seawalls in other places where nobody has objected, but this is a place that a lot of people go. They're taking a piece of public property and destroying that beach for their own private use, and I just can't let that happen."
In addition to the dolphins, Limehouse says the Spit's back beach is important to diamondback terrapins and countless birds who use it as a nesting ground. Limehouse says he's lost faith in the legal system's ability to still save the Spit. The next step, he says, will be a physical protest to block the construction of the wall.
"I don't think I'll have any trouble getting numbers together. We'll be down there when they start trying to put those rocks in the river, and I'm going to let them put them on top of me or put them back wherever they got them," says Limehouse. "They might put me in jail or I might get killed."
If the seawall is built, Captain Chad Hayes worries about the "imminent death" of the pod of dolphins that call the Kiawah River home. As a former DNR employee and the owner of the Kiawah Charter Company, he's been guiding tours and studying the pod's behavior every week for 10 years.
"Strand feeding on that bank is their preferred feeding technique, so without that beach, their feeding behaviors will change greatly, and there's probably going to be some loss of life in that transition period," says Hayes. He questions whether the dolphins will be able to relocate or readjust in time to avoid starving in the winter, since they typically gorge in the fall to build up extra fat for the leaner months. "To me, it's like they're going to bulldoze the Garden of Eden and put in a drycleaner, but dolphins don't wear dress shirts," he adds.
Most of Hayes' tour clients are either residents or visitors to Kiawah Island, and of the more than 1,000 customers he's spoken with on tours, he claims only two have supported the seawall project.
"I never thought in my life that it would get approved, but I guess if you have deep pockets, things happen," says Hayes. "I've been up and down the coast of South Carolina and seen just about every nook and cranny, and for the level of wildlife activity and scenic value, Captain Sam's takes the cake as one of the most spectacular places I have ever been to."
On a winter evening, visitors walking the back beach of the Spit are unlikely to encounter human footprints apart from their own. For true isolation and wild oceanfront vistas that are accessible to anyone — no boat required — it's amazing that this sort of place still exists.
That's a sentiment that Kiawah Island Resort agrees with, at least according to their nature programs page on their webpage. It reads, "As you enjoy this island teeming with wildlife and lush vegetation, remember that you are exploring a habitat that is becoming increasingly rare along our coast." The Resort encourages patrons to donate to the Kiawah Conservancy, a non-profit made up of residents dedicated to the preservation and research of coastal maritime forests.
Research of that sort is a constant at Captain Sam's. Stroll into the interior and you'll quickly encounter rolled-up nets placed throughout the shrubby forest. They're utilized to conduct studies of songbirds' population levels and migration patterns, and colorful specimens like the Painted Bunting and Hooded Warbler frequent the Spit in abundance.
Despite utilizing most of the Spit's forested high ground for the neighborhood, Kiawah Development Partners contends that the 50 homes will comprise only 15 percent of the Spit's 150 acres, with the remaining portion of dunes, marsh, and beach placed in a conservation easement. The Kiawah Development Partners team and their affiliates have owned Kiawah and Captain Sam's Spit since 1988, when they purchased the island from the Kuwaiti investment group that first developed the resort. Kiawah's initial environmental report, written in 1975, called for the historically unstable Spit to be preserved and never developed, but as the island began to fill up and grow in international notoriety (including major golf tournaments like last year's PGA Championship), the developers saw the Spit as a prime location that offered nearly 360-degree waterfront views.
"We're going forward with the permitting process, operating under the guise that this is the final court ruling that will be coming down on this issue," says Kiawah Development Partners spokesman Mike Touhill. He adds that the company also has no plans to force the closure of Beachwalker County Park.
"Any proposed development on Captain Sam's is not going to negatively impact the public's access to Beachwalker Park," says Touhill. "They have a 100-year access agreement, and the park is welcome to remain open regardless of what type of development occurs."
With a neighborhood in the former wilderness and a road cutting across the dunes, however, some question whether Beachwalker will continue to be one of the nation's top 10 beaches.
The environmental advocacy non-profit the Coastal Conservation League, with representation by the S.C. Environmental Law Project, plans to re-appeal the case to the Supreme Court. "We've got good legal reason to revisit this case," says Coastal Conservation's Katie Zimmerman. "It's incredibly unusual for the Supreme Court to do a complete 180 on a decision, and each of the opinions says something different. Not all of them necessarily agree that it is not within DHEC's purview to look at the cumulative impact [of a proposal]."
In addition to appealing the Supreme Court ruling on the seawall, Zimmerman says that the Coastal Conservation League will also fight those local permits Kiawah Development Partners will need to build homes.