COLUMBIA -- — During a visit last fall to a voter’s beach house, state Sen. Glenn Reese found himself watching in disbelief as ocean waves crashed at the edge of the seaside home.
So he figured his constituent, a Spartanburg jeweler who owns a house at Folly Beach, needed help. That prompted Reese to file a bill that would allow new seawalls to protect houses on eroding South Carolina beaches.
The trouble is, new seawalls have been illegal in South Carolina for 25 years – and Reese’s bill threatens to undermine a cornerstone of the 1988 coastal law. If Reese’s bill gets through the Legislature, a new wave of seawalls could be built on virtually every beach in the state, coastal regulators fear.
“We believe the bill, as written, would allow the proliferation of wood and rock sea walls on the active beach,” said Mark Plowden, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which enforces the state seawall ban.
Seawalls make beach erosion worse when hit by waves. The crashing surf digs out the beach more rapidly as it pounds the hard walls, leaving less shoreline for the public to walk on.
With limited exceptions, South Carolina’s ban on new seawalls is one of the few parts of the 1988 beach law that has been strictly enforced through the years.
The rest of the law is peppered with loopholes that led to seaside development that never was envisioned. A state coastal study commission last week recommended changes to the law to make it stronger, not weaker
But Folly Beach has a problem, Reese said. The Charleston County beach is overdue for a federally funded shoreline renourishment project that was promised long ago, Reese said.
In the meantime, the seashore is continuing to erode toward a number of houses, which in some cases have been washed under by the sea. That was particularly evident after Hurricane Sandy brushed past South Carolina on its way to blasting the Northeastern U.S., some residents say. Some of the houses at Folly Beach are worth $3 million, Reese said.
Reese’s constituent, Ed Yarborough, “is a victim in this, and all those other homeowners are victims,” Reese said.
Reese, D-Spartanburg, said he’s trying to help a constituent save his house, not wreck the state’s beach law.
“I know this is awkward, but if somebody from back home wants me to do something, that’s what I’m down here in Columbia for,” he said of his role as a senator.
The situation is so severe at Folly Beach that Yarborough has built a seawall and dumped rocks on the beach to protect the house in the 1500 block of East Ashley Avenue, state records show.
DHEC says Yarborough was building a seawall in November in violation of the law. Photographs supplied by the environmental agency show a wooden wall standing in front of the beach house.
The agency’s coastal division ordered Yarborough to stop building the wall, but the department and Yarborough remain at odds. The dispute is under discussion, said Leslie Riley, Yarborough’s attorney and a former DHEC lawyer.
Reese said he knew Yarborough was building the wall and the senator warned his constituent that the work could violate the law. But the house was being threatened by the ocean, Reese said.
Yarborough was not available last week. He is a prominent Spartanburg citizen whom Reese said he’s known all his life. Both live on Lake Bowen and know each other through the business community, the senator said.
Despite their acquaintance, Reese said “I don’t run around with him.” He said he’s trying to help Yarborough the same as he would any constituent. The several hours he spent at Yarborough’s beach house in November were educational, he said.
State Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, were skeptical that Reese’s bill will pass – and both questioned how that would affect all of the South Carolina coast.
Hutto echoed criticisms nationally about the risks of living on the oceanfront. Globally, sea levels are rising as the climate gets hotter and many communities are at increasing risk of more intense storms, research has shown.
“When you have a house on the beach, you know you are in a hurricane zone and you know these issues where the tide is coming and going,’’ Hutto said. “Any property owner who has ever bought anything on the coast had to know that. I just don’t think you can react to one emergency situation by coming up and passing new legislation. That could realistically affect buildings up and down the coast.”
The bill, which Reese said he’s willing to discuss with dissenters, focuses on emergencies.
It allows property owners to seek permits from either DHEC or local governments to protect their homes from the ocean during an emergency. The law says if DHEC didn’t approve the permit in five days, the property owner could seek one from a city or county.
Wooden seawalls and rock piles are two ways that would be allowed, the bill says. Reese said he’d be willing to make the seawalls temporary until renourishment projects are completed to widen the beach.
Hutto said allowing local governments to issue emergency permits for seawalls is a bad precedent, since cities and counties might be too close to the landowners.
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” said Cleary, whose district includes the Garden City and Pawleys Island areas of the southern Grand Strand. “There are a lot of things that get introduced in the Legislature, and you’re like ‘Really?’ ”