Congressman trying to help seaside landowners

sfretwell@thestate.comApril 7, 2014 

A South Carolina congressman is trying to make it easier for some seaside property owners in the Myrtle Beach area to get federal flood insurance for land now classified as some of the riskiest to develop in the Palmetto State.

Rep. Tom Rice says the property, owned by about two dozen people and business groups, was incorrectly classified under a program that limits federal flood insurance for development in areas most prone to damage from coastal storms.

He is sponsoring two bills in Congress, to be discussed Tuesday, that would change the law for the property in Garden City and Myrtle Beach.

The plan is expected to receive criticism from those who favor less development in storm-prone areas, but Rice said the Grand Strand properties aren’t the risky spots that government officials claim.

“Revising (the law) does not harm our beach or wetlands,” Rice, R-S.C., said in an email Monday. “It simply corrects a government mistake that has unfairly denied the owners of these properties the full use and enjoyment of their land to the unwarranted inclusion” under the federal coastal barrier act of 1982.

Under the law, new houses in such high-risk zones can’t get taxpayer-supported flood insurance, while those already built could lose flood insurance if a storm caused major damage, Rice said. The law also limits federal disaster funds, as well as money for beach renourishment projects.

Property that would benefit from Rice’s legislation includes part of a gated community on the southern tip of Garden City, as well as about 20 acres between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. The Myrtle Beach land appears to be set back from the ocean and largely undeveloped, records show. It is valued at about $2 million, according to Horry County records.

But the Garden City property includes a cluster of about 21 homes and lots on the Georgetown County community’s extreme south end. County records show the property is along the tip of the peninsula in the Inlet Harbor area. It collectively is worth more than $23 million, records show.

Among the properties is an undeveloped 11 acres valued at $2 million near where the ocean meets Murrells Inlet, according to Georgetown County property records. Developed lots are valued in the $1 million range each, records show.

Attempts to locate property owners were unsuccessful Monday.

Flood insurance is considered vital to the development and preservation of property in areas susceptible to storms and high tides. It is, typically, available to oceanfront property owners, unless they are in what are known as “COBRA zones,” like the ones in Garden City and Myrtle Beach. The COBRA law removes federal financial assistance for development on high-risk barrier islands.

Without flood insurance, people would be less likely to build near the ocean because they would not take the financial risk of losing multimillion-dollar homes, critics say. While people pay a premium for flood insurance, the federal government subsidizes the program.

In addition to Rice’s legislation for South Carolina, lawmakers in North Carolina, Florida and Rhode Island have filed similar bills to be discussed Tuesday.

Rob Young, a Western Carolina University geologist who studies beach erosion, is expected to provide testimony against exempting some property from the 1982 federal law. He acknowledged some areas could be misclassified. But overall, Young said he can’t see the benefit of federal support for oceanfront development when climate is changing and sea level is rising. He favors including more property in the coastal barrier resources law.

“We simply cannot afford to continue to hold hundreds of miles of shorelines in place with federal dollars,” Young said in testimony to be given Tuesday. “We cannot continue to support multibillion dollar emergency appropriations bills that routinely put oceanfront property back in place after a storm.”

Young, who served on a South Carolina coastal development blue ribbon panel, said the legislation is disturbing, given an attempt several years ago to remove an erosional part of Kiawah Island from the COBRA law. Now, the effort affects multiple properties in multiple states.

“This year, we have nine bills with Democratic and Republican sponsors,” he said. “That makes me nervous.”

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