HILTON HEAD ISLAND — If you want to get John Safay fired up, ask him about building huge homes on this island’s flood-threatened beaches.
It’s a bad idea, the Hilton Head town councilman says.
Safay will tell you how frustrated he is with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control — and its failure to protect beaches from encroaching development.
“It defies the imagination,” Safay said. “We put our faith in these people to do the right thing.”
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Despite a state policy of “retreat” — or moving back new construction from the beach — DHEC regulators have loosened development rules for hundreds of seaside lots since 1988.
That has prompted a seaward march of new high-rise hotels and plans for spectacular homes in some of the state’s most visible resorts.
Now, Safay and town leaders say they have had enough. With DHEC trying to ease development rules for the second time at Hilton Head, the town says it will fight to save its beaches.
Town leaders are worried about the cost of hurricanes, rising seas and protecting the scenery for the 2 million vacationers who visit each year.
Hilton Head officials are going head to head with DHEC to stop developers from building bigger structures closer to the water.
The town of Hilton Head is believed to be the first to challenge DHEC’s plans to change the lines. Council members also are considering island-wide rules that are stricter than the state’s.
Statewide, public records show DHEC has loosened development restrictions on at least 265 lots in the past 20 years.
The bulk of the changes have been in two popular resorts: Hilton Head, where at least 120 lots have been affected, and Cherry Grove, in North Myrtle Beach, where about 80 lots have looser restrictions.
So what’s driving the changes? About $200 million in publicly funded beach renourishment projects to help offset erosion. Since renourishment has made beaches wider, landowners should be free to build closer to the water, state regulators say.
Numerous critics say that’s bad policy — and goes against the intent of state law.
DHEC’s decisions are subsidizing private development and making it easier to build in harm’s way, say critics such as Safay. A hurricane can wash away a renourished beach in hours, prompting a call for more taxpayer-funded sand projects, critics say.
“We are using taxpayer money to create these beaches, and we’re being told, ‘Since the beach is wider, we can stretch development further,’” Safay said. “It’s been over 100 years since we took a direct hit from a hurricane (at Hilton Head), but you and I both know it can happen in a matter of weeks.”
Former state Rep. Lenoir Sturkie said he’s sorry to hear about the march toward the sea.
Now a real estate agent in Arizona, the former Lexington County resident chaired a House subcommittee that helped craft a sweeping 1988 state law that called for the retreat of new development from the ocean.
“It concerns me that we would allow building back in an area that is so dynamic,” he said. “To allow that goes against the intents and purposes of what we were trying to do.”
University of South Carolina marine scientist John Dean agrees. He served on a 25-member, statewide committee that in 1987 recommended tighter building restrictions to the Legislature. The committee said beach erosion had put South Carolina’s seashore “in a state of crisis.’’
“Legislators at the time understood that retreat was the best overall policy and in the best interests of South Carolina,” Dean said. “It’s ludicrous to say if you renourish a beach, that it is stabilized and you can (ease the rules). From a policy point of view, it’s a dumb policy.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ‘RETREAT’?
The building rules at issue involve a series of imaginary lines state regulators drew as part of the 1988 law.
Development is generally prohibited seaward of those lines.
But DHEC began moving some lines seaward about 10 years ago following taxpayer-funded renourishment projects. On major stretches of Hilton Head and Cherry Grove, the lines moved up to 100 feet toward the ocean after $60 million in renourishment projects.
New high-rise condo towers followed at flood-prone Cherry Grove, along with proposals to build mansionlike homes along the dune line at Hilton Head.
Unlike in Hilton Head, city leaders in North Myrtle Beach haven’t complained much about Cherry Grove’s high-rise condos.
But critics say it’s a bad and expensive idea: North Myrtle Beach has had more properties with repeat flood insurance losses than any other S.C. coastal city. Even September’s fast-moving, wimpy Hurricane Hanna flooded some streets.
Meanwhile, taxpayers are spending another $10 million to replace the sand that washed away from a North Myrtle Beach project in the 1990s.
It’s difficult to know whether pressure has been put on DHEC staff members to ease development restrictions, but veteran environmental lawyer Jimmy Chandler said he would not be surprised.
DHEC generally is sensitive to requests from powerful developers and politicians, he said. “My view is that they don’t resist that pressure very well.”
DHEC oceanographer Bill Eiser said the agency proposed easing development restrictions for scientific reasons, including how erosion affected the beach.
Construction is a big issue at Hilton Head: About 35 percent of its oceanfront has been developed or redeveloped since the law passed 20 years ago, say Clemson University researchers.
“When you look at what the state is doing, I can’t see any rhyme or reason to it,” town Councilman George Williams said. “We have to try protect the ambiance we have.”
Cherry Grove’s condo towers worried some people up and down the coast. But the debate’s new flash point is Hilton Head’s Singleton Beach, in the middle of the island near a tidal inlet.
A short distance down the expansive beach from the inlet are a dozen spectacular houses next to a large sand dune.
The tall, Charleston-style homes have seaside pools and panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. Some rent for $9,000 per week during peak tourist season.
In the late 1980s, before the big houses were built, waves hit rock walls that protected several aging homes on a beach popular with African-Americans. The beach since has been widened through town-funded renourishment projects.
People who now own vacant lots there want to build. But they need DHEC’s help.
This year, DHEC’s coastal office proposed moving the beach’s development lines seaward, in some spots as much as 40 feet.
That would allow Tad Segars to build a house.
Segars said he paid $1.6 million for his land, with the understanding the lines would move seaward. DHEC already had shifted the lines in 1999. Segars said he understood when he bought the land the agency would move the lines again. DHEC proposed the new lines this summer.
But if the state backs down in the face of Hilton Head’s protest, Segars said he won’t be able to build his dream home.
“It’s so hard to talk about this; I want to cry,” he said.
Segars said delays have hurt him financially.
“I’m not some rich guy trying to build a monster house on the beach,” he said. “I’m a poor guy just trying to build a house.”
DHEC’s Eiser said Singleton Beach has been renourished and is protected by a man-made rock jetty erected to trap sand, both done at the town’s expense. The rocks and the extra sand are keeping the shore intact, Eiser said. That justifies moving the line, officials said.
But last year, a judge said Singleton Beach’s shoreline isn’t stable enough to ease restrictions.
Carolyn Matthews, a state administrative law judge, said a major storm could bring serious erosion.
Matthews denied a request by landowners and developers to move the lines closer to the ocean.
“It is clear that the area in question ... is not sufficiently stabilized,” she wrote in her April 2007 order that referenced expert testimony. A moderate storm “would return the area to its pre-renourishment condition.”
DHEC officials say it’s important to note that they don’t always move lines seaward. If a beach erodes, the agency will move the lines away from the water. That happened recently on parts of the “toe” of the foot-shaped Hilton Head Island.
South Carolina’s retreat policy began soon after a freakish New Year’s Day storm brought unusually high tides in 1987.
Waves crashed against homes and high-rise hotels. Pools and decks washed away.
Lawmakers the next year passed the Beachfront Management Act, with its call for a gradual, 40-year shoreline retreat.
Then along came Hugo.
In 1989, Hurricane Hugo killed 29 people in the Carolinas and destroyed $7 billion worth of homes, hotels and seaside inns.
Facing angry oceanfront property owners who wanted to rebuild, S.C. lawmakers amended the 1988 law, making it easier to put back what had been there. Lawmakers eliminated the so-called “dead zone,” a 20-foot stretch of beach where development was banned.
A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case dealt the retreat another blow.
The court effectively said the state had to pay David Lucas for its strict regulation of his Isle of Palms property. DHEC regulators, by their own admission, became gun shy about limiting development.
These days, the emerging issue is not whether to allow redevelopment but whether it can go farther onto the beach.
Carolyn Boltin, director of DHEC’s coastal bureau, said renourishment has made some people forget about erosion.
“It’s a false sense of security,” she said. “They get a little sand on the beach, and they immediately want to move closer.”
But DHEC is allowing it.
Staff members interpret the state law to mean they must give credit for renourishment projects.
The law requires DHEC to review development lines every eight to 10 years to ensure they are in the right place. The law doesn’t require the agency to move the lines toward the ocean after renourishment. But that is implied in another section of the beach law, Eiser said, and is applied during the eight-to-10-year review process.
DHEC says the law is clear in other places. That’s why — outside of the eight-to-10-year reviews — DHEC also has granted special permits up and down the coast for 65 homes to be built seaward of the lines.
TIME FOR A CHANGE?
For Safay, that track record proves Hilton Head can’t count on the state.
“We have to do more to protect ourselves than put our faith in this state agency,’’ he said. Next summer, a DHEC committee created to review the 20-year-old beach law could suggest changes. The agency’s board then would have to make recommendations to the Legislature.
Sara Brown is a shoreline committee member who is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which coordinates much of the state’s renourishment work.
If South Carolina has no commitment “to enforce the retreat policy ... then we shouldn’t even have it in there,” Brown said. “And we need to have something else we feel like we can live with and enforce.”
People outside of the state are watching what DHEC does.
Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey called state regulators “oceanographically ignorant” for easing restrictions at a time of global warming and rising seas.
In the past century, the sea has risen between one and two feet on much of the S.C. coast, according to DHEC’s coastal division. It’s expected to rise at an even faster rate in the next 100 years, many scientists and state regulators say.
“It’s so sad,” said Pilkey, a beach erosion expert.
“The state has moved from having one of the nation’s strongest coastal management programs in terms of shoreline erosion to now having these guys (DHEC) worrying about interpretation of the regulations — when they should be doing everything possible to keep development from closing in on the shoreline.”
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.