‘Save the beach’ policy unrealistic, panel says

Study group faults state’s long-held ‘retreat’ policies

sfretwell@thestate.comFebruary 12, 2013 

— Twenty-six years after devastating high tides resulted in a state law to push development back from the beach, a coastal study commission says South Carolina should abandon its policy of beach retreat.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental released a report Monday that says the retreat policy is “vague and often impracticable or unattainable.” The special blue ribbon committee report recommends replacing the retreat policy with one of “preservation,” a term interpreted to mean keeping the existing line of development in place.

Monday’s report from the DHEC-appointed commission now could be used by state legislators seeking to ease existing restrictions on seaside construction. Last month, for instance, a bill was introduced that would allow new seawalls along South Carolina’s beaches, a practice banned since the late 1980s.

Seaside development drives South Carolina’s more than $15 billion tourism economy, attracting millions of vacationers each year to the Grand Strand, Hilton Head Island and Charleston-area beaches. Towering hotels and large beach homes stretch across the coast.

But sea level is rising and more intense storms are forecast as Earth’s climate warms. That puts oceanfront development in greater peril and increases chances that taxpayers will have to bail out seaside landowners whose property is wrecked.

Federal and state taxpayers already have pumped millions of dollars worth of sand on the beaches to make them wider for tourists, but also to shield seaside development from the ocean.

The state’s retreat policy, outlined in a 1988 coastal law, was intended to preserve the public beach from erosion, which gets worse when waves pound seawalls and buildings. When that happens, the erosion gives the public less dry sand beach to walk on.

In some ways, the report’s recommendation to abandon the retreat policy is symbolic. The state’s 1988 beach management plan called for a retreat away from the beach over time by attempting to make it harder to redevelop property. But the march landward never happened.

“It became apparent that the retreat policy — while noble and desirable and it makes common sense — was just really not being effective,” said study committee chairman Wes Jones, an attorney and former coastal regulator from Beaufort County. “Where we came down was to concentrate on preservation rather than try to have this illusion out there that didn’t seem to co-exist with reality.”

Virtually everything destroyed during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was rebuilt over the next decade through a series of special permits and legal interpretations by courts and DHEC staff members. In many instances, high-rises and expansive homes were built closer to the ocean after taxpayer-funded beach-renourishment projects.

Monday’s draft report includes some sections that would strengthen the state’s beach law, among them a recommendation not to allow new development farther out on beaches. That has occurred in the past two decades after DHEC regulators interpreted state law to mean they could move a building restriction line seaward after renourishment projects, which allowed construction closer to the sea.

Still, it isn’t realistic to continue the policy of trying to push back from the ocean, according to the Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management, the DHEC panel that developed the report.

Marine scientist John Mark Dean, a Columbia resident who was on a 1987 state study panel that recommended the retreat policy, wasn’t impressed with the new blue ribbon committee’s recommendation to abandon retreat in favor of preservation.

“I find it troubling that we’re saying, ‘We can’t do this, so we’re going to just take the language out,’” Dean said, adding that dropping the retreat policy is a blow against the public.

South Carolina’s 1988 beach management law resulted largely from a series of unusually high tides that blasted the coast in late 1986 and again on New Year’s Day 1987. Those tides, driven by relatively small storms, caused some $20 million worth of property damage as pools, decks and seawalls fell into the ocean, many of them in the Myrtle Beach area.

The release of the report Monday clarifies a dispute over whether the DHEC study panel would formally recommend abandoning the state’s 1988 shoreline retreat policy. The Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management fought about the issue for more than two years, and even last month, was sharply divided over whether to include the change in its final report.

DHEC is receiving public comments on the draft report for the next 30 days. The report will then be sent to the DHEC board and to the Legislature, according to plans.

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