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Accretion and Property Rights on Sullivan’s Island
Imagine you own beachfront property in South Carolina just steps away from the ocean. Now imagine that over time, the distance between your home and the ocean gets larger and larger as the beach grows, putting you further and further from the water.
This was the situation for homeowners on Sullivan’s Island, a small island town just outside Charleston, SC. They sued the town in a case that was heard by the South Carolina Supreme Court in November 2019, Bluestein vs. Town of Sullivan’s Island. At the center of the case was the concept of accretion.
South Carolina’s coastline is subject to a number of natural phenomena including erosion and accretion. Erosion occurs when sand, sediment, and other land matter is carried away from the coast, causing the beach to shrink as the high-water line creeps further in. It’s caused by strong waves, storm surge, and coastal flooding.
The contrary of this is accretion, where sand, sediment, and other land matter is deposited on the coast by the waves. Over time, this causes the beach to grow bigger.
Sullivan’s Island experiences both of these forces, with erosion affecting the coastline in the northern part of the island and accretion affecting the southern and central areas.
Suing Over the Town’s Approach to Managing Accretion
Accretion is a natural phenomenon, so what’s the basis for someone to sue over it? While accretion is something that can’t be controlled by humans, the consequences of it can be.
In the case at hand, two couples – Nathan Bluestein and Ettaleah Bluestein, MD, and Theodore Albenesius and Karen Albenesius (collectively, the Petitioners) brought a suit against the Town of Sullivan’s Island and Sullivan’s Island Town Council (collectively, the Town).
The Petitioners separately bought front-row property on Sullivan’s Island, the Bluesteins around 1980, the Albenesiuses around 2009. Their properties were considered oceanfront when purchased and were a short distance from the shoreline. Today, due to accretion, the shoreline is much further away from their homes, approximately 500 feet or more. (In a footnote in its opinion, the court notes that the rate of accretion is approximately 17 feet per year.)
This does not mean that the Petitioners’ properties have increased – the land between their properties and the shoreline doesn’t belong to them. That property is subject to a 1991 deed, created in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, under which the Town has duties to upkeep the land.
How to interpret the deed was the main issue in the case, with the court noting “The parties have cherrypicked language from the 1991 deed which ostensibly supports their respective interpretations of the deed.”
The Town’s Duties to the Land
The Petitioners argue that the 1991 deed means the Town should keep the vegetation on that land between their properties and the shoreline in the same condition as it was in 1991. In 1991, the vegetation was mostly sea oats and wild flowers, no taller than 3 feet high. In contrast, the Town argues that the deed gives it unfettered license to allow the vegetation to grow unchecked, which is what it has done.
Over the years, a maritime forest has grown up on that land. The tall and thick vegetation harbors coyotes, snakes, and other “varmints” (in the word of the court) and is a fire hazard, complain the Petitioners. The Petitioners also complain that their homes are taxed like beachfront property, but they now have no ocean views or ocean breezes due to the vegetation growth and are farther away from the ocean. In the case heard by the Court of Appeals, they claimed their properties have lost more than $1,000,000 in value because of this.
The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the Town in its decision, which the Supreme Court reversed in its February 2020 decision, remanding the case. The Supreme Court stated that this case can’t be settled as a matter of law, as the 1991 deed is too ambiguous, and there are still issues of material fact exist that must first be resolved.
Just recently, in October 2020, the parties reached a settlement resolution together, ending further litigation. As described in the settlement, the Town will “implement selective thinning of the Accreted Land” zone by zone using funds from the Town, Plaintiffs, and Homeowners. This should mitigate the effects of accretion on the property in question. Read about the full settlement resolution here.
Caring for Land in the Public Interest
As South Carolina residents, we all have an interest in the health of our coastlines, even if we live far from the beach. Just as we saw in the case covered on this blog about the Public Trust Doctrine, it’s up to the entities in charge of these precious stretches of land to balance the needs of the individuals who live there with the public good, while respecting Mother Nature.