SC beach dispute heats up

sfretwell@thestate.comMay 13, 2014 

The water level at Debordieu Beach can rise to over the beach wall at times.

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— South Carolina’s policy of letting people build closer to the ocean after renourishment projects temporarily widen beaches was supposed to end in July, but a proposal that could delay tighter controls on the practice has added fuel to a sizzling legislative fight over coastal development.

Three of the state’s leading conservation organizations are holding a news conference Wednesday morning to blast legislation they say will protect wealthy landowners and developers at the expense of public beaches.

“It is absolute insanity,” said Katie Zimmerman, who tracks beachfront issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “This is exactly the opposite of what our state should be doing. You would expect legislators to look out for the public interest –and clearly this is not in the public interest.”

At issue is a bill that was intended to hold the line against oceanfront development as the region’s climate changes, sea levels rise and public beaches erode.

But the bill has been amended heavily to allow a new seawall for a few high-end beach houses at Debordieu Beach, which would be a potentially precedent-setting departure from two decades of coastal management law. Seawalls worsen beach erosion when pounded by waves, leaving less room on the shore for the public to walk on. New ones are now illegal in South Carolina.

And last week, the bill was changed again, this time to delay tighter controls on how close new development can come to the ocean. That issue had not been discussed publicly until developers from Kiawah Island showed up Thursday at a House agriculture meeting in Columbia.

Developers persuaded the committee to vote for a plan that will let the state move an oceanfront building restriction line seaward one more time to accommodate development during the next seven years. After July 2021, the line could never be moved again. But the original bill, based on recommendations from two statewide coastal study commissions, would have stopped movement of the line beginning in July 2014.

The line, called a baseline, is supposed to prevent development from encroaching too close to the water – and the storms and high tides that ultimately could cost taxpayers when new construction is damaged. State regulators can move the lines landward if erosion is eating away at a beach, but say they must also give credit when a beach builds up – whether naturally or through renourishment.

Dwight Drake, a Columbia lawyer and lobbyist who represents the Kiawah developers, said the House Agriculture Committee amendment was written narrowly so that it, in effect, will have little impact on most of the state’s beaches, which unlike Kiawah, are eroding. The amendment strikes a section of the law that allows developers to petition to move the line after renourishment projects.

The change, however, does not silence another part of the law that lets state regulators move the line seaward after beach renourishment, said Amy Armstrong, who heads the S.C. Environmental Law Project, one of the organizations speaking Wednesday against weakening development rules.

State regulators reset the lines every eight to 10 years, and in the past, their decisions have helped developers in places such as Cherry Grove, where huge condo towers have been built as lines moved seaward.

The seawall issue that erupted earlier this spring centers on Debordieu Beach, a gated community of some 1,200 homes south of Myrtle Beach in Georgetown County.

Corporate executives, ex-state policymakers, real estate interests and others want the state to change the two-decades-old prohibition on new seawalls so they can protect their homes with a new seawall at Debordieu. The bill sailed through the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee after the landowners hired ex-coastal regulator Wayne Beam to lobby for the seawall.

Conservationists, and even some Debordieu landowners who don’t live behind the seawall, say granting an exemption from the state’s 1988 beach management law would prompt other communities to seek to build new seawalls. Backers of the bill say they are afraid the state will be sued if people behind the seawall can’t replace the aging, 33-year-old wall.

“The one thing that disturbs me is that, if this passes, it eviscerates (the state) from protecting our beaches,” said Georgetown County resident Robert Schofield. “This .... is in favor of special interests. It sets a bad precedent, and that’s why I oppose it.”

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