Coastal Preservation, Beach Dredge & Fill, Shoreline Armoring, Legal
July 08 2016

Surfrider To Present Closing Argument in Sea Island Groin Appeal

by Staley Prom

On Wednesday, July 13, the Surfrider Foundation will present closing argument in its administrative challenge against a proposed 350-foot long, 6-foot high, rock groin on Sea Island, in southeast Georgia.  The Surfrider Foundation Georgia Chapter and the Altamaha Riverkeeper brought their petition in January, challenging the Georgia Shore Protection Committee’s decision to permit a permanent rock groin on the pristine Sea Island Spit.  The groin, proposed by Sea Island Acquisition LLC, would be perpendicular to the shore, with a 120-foot T-shaped head in the ocean running parallel to the coast, and would exacerbate erosion of this already highly erosive coastal barrier island.  Two previously installed groins upcoast have had severe erosion impacts to the south end of the Spit.   

The Georgia Shore Protection Act requires that projects like this be in the public interest - and specifically that they (1) not unreasonably harm the dynamic dune field, submerged lands, or sand sharing system; (2) not unreasonably interfere with the conservation of marine life, wildlife, or other resources; and (3) not unreasonably interfere with reasonable access by and recreational use and enjoyment of public properties impacted by the project - and that all reasonable viable alternatives be considered first.  The statute also clearly provides, "that beach restoration and renourishment techniques are preferable to the construction of shoreline stabilization activities."

Here, these mandates were not followed.  This proposed project would unreasonably impact and exacerbate beach erosion by altering the natural sand sharing processes in the area, which are critical to the existence of the Spit and functioning of the adjacent Gould’s Inlet, a popular spot for surfers, kayakers, and stand-up paddlers, and have adverse effects on several species of protected sea turtles.

At its hearing in May, Surfrider showed evidence of the potential harms, via testimony from sea turtle experts Kirt Rusenko and Mark Dodd, and coastal geologists, Dr. Chester Jackson and Dr. Rob Young.  Specificially, Rusenko and Dodd's testimony showed that the proposed project would (1) inhibit female sea turtles from reaching the beach, (2) act as a barrier to hatchling turtles trying to make their way to the ocean, (3) entrap hatchlings within the T-shaped barrier, (4) concentrate predators in the vicinity of the groin, increasing risk of hatchling death, and (5) result in a loss of at least 100 meters of sea turtle habitat on both sides of the groin.  Dodd, who has been employed for 17 years as a Senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and is the State of Georgia's Sea Turtle Coordinator, had previously filed comments on behalf of the DNR in response to Sea Island Acquisition's project application, concluding that the project would "unreasonably interfere" with the conservation of sea turtle populations in Georgia, and recommending that the permit be denied.  Only four days later, however, Dodd's supervisor, who has no background in sea turtle conservation, instructed DNR staff to revise and resbumit the comments, still acknowleding that the groin would result in loss of habitat and interefere with sea turtle conservation in the state, but omitting the word "unreasonably."  Dodd testified, however, that he had no part in making that change, and that he still believes the the proposed groin will unreasonably interfere with sea turtle conservation. 

Meanwhile, coastal geologist and Associate Professor of Geology at Georgia Southern University, Dr. Jackson, presented testimony showing the dramatic increase that the already-existing groins have had on shoreline retreat at Sea Island - approximately 3 meters a year, as opposed to .08 meters a year, before the groins were installed.  Further, Dr. Young, an Elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America, and Professor of Geology at Western Carolina University, showed that a less impactful, non-structural "nourishment" project, without a groin, was feasible, as plainly preferred by Georgia statute.  Surfrider and Altamaha Riverkeeper also submitted testimony from members whose recreational and aesthetic enjoyment of the area will be negatively affected by the project. 

Having presented all evidence at the hearing in May, and having submitted proposed orders on June 30th, (see Surfrider's proposed order), Surfrider and our co-petitioners Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles (whose petition was consolidated with Surfrider's), along with the State and Sea Island Acquisition, are now poised to present closing argument in Atlanta, on Wednesday, July 13th.  Surfrider Foundation is hopeful the Administrative Law Judge will make the right decision and hold that the permit should not have been granted, as it is not in the public interest, and less harmful alternatives are available.  A decision is expected to be rendered in late summer or early fall.

Update: While the Court found for the Georgia Shore Protection Committee in this appeal, as of October, 2017, the developers of the lots sought to be protected by the armoring project have reportedly stated that they have halted marketing the lots. The Surfrider Foundation continues to monitor the matter, and seeks to protect Sea Island.