COLUMBIA, SC — A 26-year-old state policy that allows developers to construct high-rise hotels along flood-prone beaches faces scrutiny this year as South Carolina lawmakers examine the financial and environmental risks of building too close to the ocean.
Since the state adopted a sweeping beach management law in 1988, coastal regulators have interpreted the act to mean they could ease development restrictions when taxpayer-funded beach renourishment projects temporarily widen the seashore.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control’s interpretation has allowed for construction of towering condo projects on some beaches and plans for mansions on others.
But the state’s stance on the law has drawn criticism from taxpayer groups and environmentalists.
Critics say DHEC’s interpretation violates the spirit of the 1988 law, which was intended to push new development projects back from the seashore over time. They say it is foolish to count on artificially widened beaches – paid for by taxpayers – to buffer new development from hurricanes and rising seas.
Now, state Sen. Ray Cleary is pushing to change the law, making it clear that new buildings can no longer be developed closer to the ocean than the existing line of beach development.
A bill the Murrells Inlet Republican introduced last month would prevent state regulators from ever moving the state’s building restriction line closer to the ocean. That would affect new buildings, including hotels, as well as new golf courses.
Regulators now will shift the line toward the ocean if communities renourish beaches, but critics say the sand will eventually wash away.
Not only has the policy of moving the development line seaward meant less room for vacationers to walk on the shore, it also has put taxpayers at risk of bailing out huge new projects if hurricanes and rising seas damage the buildings.
“I’m going to be hard core: I don’t think there’s ever a reason to develop east’’ of the building restriction line, Cleary said, noting that doing that could cause people to seek help from the Legislature after storms flood the encroaching development.
“It has a great chance of becoming a chronic issue, where people will be looking for relief from the Legislature.’’
Cleary’s bill is based on the recommendations of a coastal blue ribbon committee that recently completed a review of the 1988 law. Cleary was a member of the committee.
The law was intended to slowly push new development away from the ocean, but it is riddled with loopholes and has not resulted in a “retreat’’ from the beach. The DHEC study committee that Cleary sat on recommended abandoning the retreat policy, saying it is unrealistic.
But the committee’s report does discourage development farther out on the beach and closer to the ocean.
Katie Zimmerman, who tracks beach issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said Cleary’s concerns are valid. Moving the lines seaward after renourishment gives people “a false sense of hope’’ that the practice is sound, she said.
On at least two parts of the coast – North Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island – more intense development plans emerged after the building restriction lines were moved.
That’s particularly evident in North Myrtle Beach’s Cherry Grove section, where several high-rise condo towers were built after development lines were moved seaward after a federal renourishment project in the 1990s.
Cherry Grove, a narrow spit of land between the marsh and the ocean, is one of the most flood-prone sections of the state’s coast, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Since the late 1980s, taxpayers have spent more than $200 million to artificially widen beaches in South Carolina, where rising seas, currents and storm-driven waves are eating away at the natural coast.
Still, Cleary’s bill is likely to meet resistance from coastal development interests, which could make passage difficult in the 2014 legislative session. Coastal development bills are contentious and often take time to get through the Legislature, said Senate leader John Courson, a Columbia Republican. This year is an election year and legislators might be hesitant to take on such controversial topics, he said.
Charleston attorney Mary Shahid, an ex-state coastal regulator, said the bill raises flags because many people buy coastal property with the expectation building restriction lines can change if the beach builds up.
“This could certainly interfere with very reasonable expectations,’’ Shahid said. “We’ve been buying and selling property under the beachfront management act for 20-something years.’’
Cleary’s bill also may meet resistance from those who want to loosen development restrictions on coastal property. State Sen. Glenn Reese, a Spartanburg Democrat, has a bill pending to allow new seawalls for the first time in a quarter century.
Cleary said he hopes to at least force public discussion of the oceanfront building issue.
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.