“Beachfront” homeowners don’t always consider accretion to be a blessing

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Sullivan’s Island litigants lose appeal on maritime forest maintenance

On August 1, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed Master-In-Equity Mikell Scarborough’s award of summary judgment in favor of the Town of Sullivan’s Island in a case where homeowners sought maintenance of the maritime forest that separates their homes from the ocean.*

Many coastal communities would love to face the gradual accretion of more oceanfront property. But, in this case, the additional property became a maritime forest that, according to the adjacent homeowners, breeds snakes, rats, raccoons, bugs, spiders and other unwanted varmints and dangerous animals and also poses danger from fires and criminal activity.

The case cites University of South Carolina Law School Professor Josh Eagle’s explanation of accretion and erosion:  “Sand grains do not magically vanish from or appear on a beach; rather they are going to or coming from somewhere else along the coast.”** The Court stated that while most land use cases along our coast involve erosion, or loss of beachfront sediment, this case involves accretion, or the addition of sediment to the beach front.

sullivan's island

The unique Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse

These litigants have been involved in more than a six-year battle over what they call a “maritime jungle”. A major component of the landowner’s objection is that their properties are taxed as if they are ocean-front properties, but the value of their properties have plummeted more than a million dollars because of lack of ocean views and breezes and lack of access to the beach.

The property that separates these landowners from the ocean was conveyed by the Town to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust in 1991. Simultaneous, the Trust conveyed the land back to the town, subject to restrictions intended to preserve and conserve the natural area. The restrictions require that the property be maintained in its natural state but give the Town the authority to trim and control the growth of vegetation for the purposes of mosquito control and scenic enhancement. The Town also passed ordinances restricting the use of the property against the destruction of vegetation (except trimming, cutting and pruning).

When the 1991 deeds were executed, the ocean adjacent land was covered in sea oats and wildflowers, and the litigants’ homes had unobstructed ocean views and access to ocean breezes. The Town’s brief argued that the problem dates back to Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, which destroyed all the trees on the land. Over time, natural shrubs and trees replaced the bare, hurricane-ravaged land. At the same time, sand built up, making the houses farther from the ocean.

In the summer of 2010, the landowners applied to the Town for a permit to trim and prune the ocean adjacent property, but the Town denied the permit. This litigation followed. On appeal, the landowners argued that the deed restrictions require the Town to preserve the ocean adjacent property exactly as it existed in 1991. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the deed was unambiguous and evidenced the intent that the Town would maintain the land’s natural character. The landowners’ interpretation would require the Town to continuously remove all vegetation from the beach that was not present in 1991, but the Court refused to read the deed to require such drastic management of the property.

Elizabeth Hagood, the Executive Director of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust stated in an affidavit that the Trust periodically and regularly visited the ocean adjacent land, reviewing the existing field conditions, comparing the field conditions to the deed restrictions, and finding nothing violated the deed restrictions.

As to the nuisance arguments, the Court held that those arguments sound in contract rather than tort, and nothing in the contract (the deed or the ordinances) requires the Town to clear the land.

*Bluestein v. Town of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5581 (August 1, 2018)

**Josh Eagle, Coastal Law 6 (2011)

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