COLUMBIA, SC — In the 24 years since Hurricane Hugo wrecked South Carolina’s coast, state regulators have allowed many people to build closer to the ocean than ever before.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way under a 1988 law intended to gradually push development back from the beach. But conflicting sections of the law prompted state regulators to approve high-rise hotels and houses farther out on the beach --- even though the structures became more vulnerable to future storms.
Now, a coastal study commission says that should change. After nearly two years of work, the state commission says South Carolina should clarify the law to prevent the march of development toward the sea.
The recommendations, approved Wednesday, are being made as the nation refocuses attention on rising sea level, climate change and the cost of killer storms on coastal communities.
Billions of dollars in federal aid are being sent to the northeastern U.S. to help victims of Hurricane Sandy, a devastating storm that washed away boardwalks, homes and businesses from New Jersey to Connecticut last fall.
Elizabeth Hagood, a former state regulator and member of the South Carolina study committee, said that while the memories of Hurricane Hugo may have faded in the Palmetto State, Sandy should resonate with every South Carolina resident.
“If Sandy had hit us, we would have a more sharp view’’ of the need to better control seaside development,’’ she said.
Wednesday’s recommendations will be contained in a report to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board and eventually to the S.C. Legislature. The Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management wrapped up its work during a meeting in Columbia.
The proposed changes are considered modest because they don’t offer new ideas on how to regulate beach development or how to realistically move existing development back from the beach. They also grandfather existing development in many cases. The recommendations were made after a sharp disagreement among committee members Wednesday on whether to abandon the state’s standing policy of retreat, or moving development away from the beach over time. The committee didn’t clarify the issue.
Still, the recommendations do address some of the loopholes and questionable interpretations of the 1988 law.
“Nothing is drastic here, but this a common sense strengthening and accountability and clarification of our goals,’’ said Hagood, a former DHEC board member. “Overall, it is a strengthening of the beachfront management act.’’
Development too close to the seashore not only exposes buildings to greater damage from hurricanes, but it can erode the beach the public uses to walk on. When waves pound buildings and seawalls, it worsens erosion by digging out the beach more rapidly.
Among the recommendations in the report, which will be available for public comment later this winter, are calls for South Carolina to:
• Stop allowing hotels, condominiums and other new development projects to jut far out on the beach. No new development should be allowed past a state primary building restriction line. DHEC’s coastal division for years has approved the practice, in some cases, after taxpayer-funded renourishment projects artificially built up the beach. When the sand washes away, the buildings are more vulnerable to the sea.
• Stop allowing new houses of more than 5,000 square feet to be constructed in areas touched by state building restriction lines, or setbacks. The lines were intended to limit development, but haven’t always done so. In the past, DHEC staff has interpreted the law to mean it could only restrict the portion of the house beyond the seaside building line. That allowed houses bigger than 5,000 square feet to be built on the oceanfront because they were only partially within the state’s jurisdiction.
• Stop allowing new or expanding golf courses to be built on the oceanfront past the state’s building restriction line. Some courses have been built past the line, DHEC coastal regulator Carolyn Boltin-Kelly said.
• Ban new groins -- rock and wooden walls that extend into the ocean -- except in limited circumstances. Groins slow erosion on parts of the beach, but make it worse on other parts.
• Stop letting cities and counties issue emergency orders for property owners to protect beachfront property with sandbags. The state would take sole authority over this practice.
• Establish a source of money to pay for beach renourishment projects or to move imperiled homes back from the beach. The state has had a renourishment fund for years, but it is largely empty because money usually isn’t appropriated by the Legislature.
Whether state lawmakers follow the commission’s advice is anything but a surety. Bills have already been introduced in the Legislature this year to weaken the existing state law.
Most notable is a bill that would allow new seawalls on the beach, a practice that has been banned in South Carolina for 25 years. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, comes as a Folly Beach landowner has built a seawall on the beach, which is not allowed under state law.
Reese introduced his bill after DHEC sought to stop the construction and have the seawall removed. He did not return telephone calls Wednesday to The State.