SC beach report criticized

sfretwell@thestate.comApril 11, 2013 



A state environmental regulator isn’t happy with abandoning South Carolina’s policy of pushing development back from the Palmetto State’s eroding beaches.

Clarence Batts, a board member at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, criticized on Thursday a report calling for the end to South Carolina’s beach “retreat’’ policy.

The policy is part of a 25-year-old law written to protect South Carolina’s beaches and limit damage to seaside buildings constructed too close to the ocean. Its intent was to gradually move new development back from the seashore, leaving more room for people to walk on the beach.

But in a report completed in January, a special coastal study commission recommended dropping the retreat policy because, so far, it has been ineffective in moving development back from the sea. The commission said the state should instead encourage “preservation” of the beach. The report was presented to the DHEC board Thursday.

“I don’t think as a policy we should back away from this,’’ Batts said of the retreat policy. “We should look at ways of addressing” retreat from the ocean.

The DHEC board took no action on the study, but will examine the conclusions before deciding whether to recommend changes in the beach law to the Legislature.

The special study committee, commissioned by DHEC more than two years ago to analyze the effectiveness of the coastal law, said the state should drop the retreat policy in favor of a policy of “preservation of the beach/dune system.’’

Since the state’s beach management law passed in 1988, it has been riddled with exemptions that allowed the seaside building boom to continue near the ocean. Virtually everything wiped out by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 has been rebuilt, in some cases bigger and closer to the sea. In some places, such as North Myrtle Beach, high-rise condominiums have been built in places that at one point had been off limits for such construction under the 1988 law.

Study commission members were sharply divided on whether to recommend eliminating the retreat policy. But a majority agreed that it isn’t realistic, given that people long ago built hotels, cottages and condominiums close to the beach.

Batts said he also is concerned the report doesn’t seek a halt to special exemptions for property owners to build past an oceanfront building restriction line.

“Even though retreat hasn’t worked, as a policy, you have to have a high standard or vision,’’ Batts said. “I don’t think using the word ‘preservation’ instead of ‘retreat’ is an improvement. It doesn’t really say anything.’’

Abandoning the retreat policy is in conflict with some states and comes at a time of rising seas and the threat of more intense hurricanes, both of which are tied to global warming. In the northeast, where Hurricane Sandy ravaged beaches last fall, some states are considering paying property owners for wrecked homes so the houses will not be rebuilt in harm’s way. When hurricanes destroy seaside property, the government often must bail out landowners at taxpayer expense.

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