News | April 30, 2020

Army Corps, Charleston verbally commit to more time for public engagement on seawall plan

SELC and its Charleston partners have successfully convinced the City of Charleston and the Army Corps of Engineers to commit to an expanded timeline for the public to learn more about a massive storm-surge control project that likely will cost billions of dollars and change the Charleston landscape forever.

However, it is not yet clear how the agencies will use that extra time during the health crisis to reach out to the public and accept public comments.

The City and the Corps recently released a proposal to build a wall encircling much of the Charleston Peninsula to mitigate the destructive storm surges increasingly inundating the historic city. Rising sea levels, more rain-soaked storms and more formidable storm surges frequently conspire to flood the Historic Downtown, even when foul weather passes well offshore.

Three hundred years ago, Charleston residents built a wall to keep out the sea. Whether that is the best decision now is not as certain.

Chris DeScherer, Managing Attorney of SELC’s Charleston office

In making the proposal public, the Corps initially proposed a 60-day comment period but, because of the COVID-19 crisis, none of the engagement would have been in person. SELC’s client, the Coastal Conservation League, made the case for a longer public-outreach period in an op-ed in the Post and Courier.

Since then, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg revealed a new timeline that will increase the opportunity for public input. After the initial 60-day federal comment period ends, the city will launch a six-month effort to more fully explain the project and to accept public input. According to Mayor Tecklenburg, the Corps will open another comment period of 30 days sometime next year.

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Absent so far from that commitment is a detailed plan for the level of public engagement a plan of this magnitude will require. A critical piece of the plan is how the City and the Corps conduct required outreach sessions, and if through online platforms, how they will reach affected neighborhoods lacking the robust internet connections of more affluent areas.

Chris DeScherer, Managing Attorney of SELC’s Charleston office, who is helping oversee SELC’s efforts to help coastal communities adapt to the changing climate, says SELC and others will use the extra time to dig into the proposal.

“Three hundred years ago, Charleston residents built a wall to keep out the sea,” DeScherer said. “Whether that is the best decision now is not as certain.”

DeScherer said storm surge is not the only source responsible for Charleston’s increased flooding. Others include rising seas that can overtop walls and infiltrate the city’s antiquated drainage system, storms that dump more rain, and a loss of wetlands.

“We’ll use this extra time to fully evaluate the soundness of the Corps’ idea,” DeScherer said. “It will also give us the opportunity to look at alternatives.”