Captain Sams Spit is one of South Carolina’s few remaining pristine beaches. File/Jerry McMahon/Provided

SC - Opinion: Conserve Captain Sams Spit, one of SC's few pristine beaches

As we wade through the peak of South Carolina’s beach season, we urge state lawmakers and the conservation community to find a way to protect one of the most beautiful and sensitive parts of our coast: Captain Sams Spit at the southern tip of Kiawah Island.

This is one of our state’s few remaining pristine, publicly accessible sandy beaches (the others being Hunting Island and Huntington Beach state parks), but it won’t be spared from development forever unless it is placed in the public’s hands.

During the past 15 years, we’ve lamented several attempts by Captain Sams’ private owners to obtain permits for the infrastructure work needed to build luxury homes on the beautiful but fragile spit of sand just south of Charleston County’s popular Kiawah Beachwalker Park.

We applaud the environmentalists and their lawyers who successfully challenged and beat back these attempts. A year after their most recent victory before the S.C. Supreme Court, the developer’s preliminary plat has expired, so the most recent appeal now seems moot and might be dismissed, forcing developers back to square one.

But even if that takes place, it’s naive to think the developers will give up and go away, so we urge the state to secure public ownership. As we’ve said before, South Carolina’s growth and prosperity should lead to more, not less, access to our pristine beaches: Allowing development on Captain Sams Spit would be the ultimate example of sacrificing a public resource to maximize private gain.

Striking a deal for the state to purchase Captain Sams Spit not only would ensure this land continues to be available for all of our enjoyment, but also would ward off a potentially disastrous outcome if it eventually were developed, which almost certainly would involve building a new road between the spit’s high ground and the rest of Kiawah. The new structural walls that would be needed to secure that road have been at the heart of much of the legal wrangling so far. The teardrop-shaped spit is only tentatively attached to the larger island, and storms have severed its link a few times.

We should be building less along our dynamic, fragile coast, not more, especially at a time when temperatures and the sea level are rising. The privately owned Captain Sams abuts — and for visitors, is virtually indistinguishable from — Beachwalker, one of our region’s most popular beach parks, where parking spots fill up quickly on summer weekend mornings. As Johns Island, Charleston County and our whole state continue to grow, we need to protect these special places for public enjoyment.

However, it’s important to recall a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that was set in a case involving a barrier island just a few islands north of Kiawah (Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council), which makes it clear that if government restricts all potential use of a piece of private property,  that is considered a taking — and the property owner is owed compensation. So hoping to keep the island pristine forever by simply rejecting future development attempts, no matter how ill-considered or environmentally destructive they might be, is not a winning strategy.

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