South Carolina’s 25-year-old ban on new seawalls remained intact Thursday, but a recent dustup at Folly Beach has refocused attention on how to protect property from the ocean’s waves.
Since 1988, South Carolina has forbidden new seawalls because they make beach erosion worse. And except for a few instances, private property owners haven’t complained much about the prohibition.
Why? Taxpayers have spent more than $200 million renourishing beaches. The extra sand added a buffer between developed property and the Atlantic Ocean, which muffled the cry for new seawalls.
Now, however, Folly Beach officials say the town is overdue for a federally backed renourishment project, leaving some oceanfront buildings increasingly vulnerable to the ocean’s waves.
If state and local leaders can’t find money to widen Folly’s shoreline and protect its $300 million oceanfront, the town will need relief from the state’s seawall ban, local officials say.
The same request could extend to other South Carolina resorts if public money ever dries up, others say.
“Right now, we’re waiting for funds,’’ Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin said after a Senate committee rejected a bill to ease the state’s 1988 seawall ban. “If we would have renourished last year like we were trying to, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.’’
In deciding not to vote on the bill Thursday, the Senate agriculture committee was sympathetic and agreed to re-examine the seawall ban when the Legislature returns next January.
The S.C. Legislature prohibited new seawalls in 1988 in an attempt to protect the public beach for vacationers, while shielding property from the ocean. Seawalls are often effective at protecting beach houses and hotels, but they make the beach erode faster when hit by waves. Since the ban took effect, most resorts, including Folly Beach, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, have pumped millions of dollars worth of sand on their shores to keep them wide.
But sand on renourished beaches eventually washes away and questions continue to surface about the wisdom of spending more taxpayer dollars on these projects.
President George W. Bush questioned the cost of renourishment during his administration, proposing to cut funding at one point. More recently, President Barack Obama has not included $15 million to $18 million for the Folly project in budget plans.
So seawalls are back in the news.
Rob Young, a coastal geologist from Western Carolina University, said Folly’s recent issue has exposed the clash between a lack of beach renourishment and the desire by some people for seawalls when they think their property is threatened.
“In communities that don’t get beach renourishment when they want it, the pressure is going to increase to build seawalls,’’ said Young, who served on a state blue ribbon commission that analyzed South Carolina’s coastal management laws.
Young said, however, that South Carolina should stand firm and continue the seawall prohibition to protect the public beach. It isn’t the state’s responsibility to rescue people’s investments when they’ve built close to the ocean, he said.
“This is about personal responsibility,’’ he said. “Sometimes people make the wrong choice. It’s not the job of the Legislature or the citizens of South Carolina to bail them out for that choice.’’
Senators said Thursday they don’t want to end the state’s overall ban on seawalls, but some said Folly’s special conditions make it worth looking at some flexibility. The beach at Folly is downstream from the Charleston Harbor jetties, which geologists say divert sand away from the town’s shores.
Folly Beach is one of the most popular resort spots in Charleston County. The community has a six-mile long beach and about 2,200 residents, but its population swells to some 40,000 on a typical summer weekend, Goodwin said.
“We do have a very significant problem here, and it does need to be adequately addressed,’’ Senate agriculture committee chairman Danny Verdin, R-Laurens said.
Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, introduced the bill to help a constituent who owns a second home at Folly Beach. The constituent, Ed Yarborough, built a seawall late last year in state jurisdiction and is now tied up in a legal dispute over whether he can keep it. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says the wall is illegal and has ordered it removed.
Meanwhile, DHEC director Catherine Templeton and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League’s Katie Zimmerman said they’re trying to determine if the Yarborough seawall could jeopardize future federal funds for Folly renourishment projects. Templeton said the Corps doesn’t allow building on renourished beaches. A Corps spokesman could not verify that Thursday. The Yarborough home is in an area of past renourishment projects.
“Those are the kinds of things the General Assembly and (Verdin) need to be aware of,’’ Templeton said.