Unmoved by calls to push development back from the beach as ocean levels rise, South Carolina lawmakers took steps Thursday that could allow new seawalls and more construction farther out on the state’s eroding shores.
A House committee voted 17-1 for a bill that is predicted to weaken South Carolina’s longstanding prohibition against new seawalls, while agreeing to delay plans that would stop high-rise hotels from being built closer to the Atlantic Ocean.
House members said their actions were intended to protect beach homes from the sea and keep South Carolina out of costly lawsuits that could be filed if they took a hard line against beach development.
But coastal protection advocates said the agriculture committee’s vote ignores science, caters to wealthy landowners and ultimately will hurt the public beaches that fuel South Carolina’s multi-billion dollar tourism economy.
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“This legislation reflects a complete inability of government to confront what are essentially indisputable facts,’’ said Dana Beach, who heads the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “We are not going to be able to maintain, even over the mid-term, a number of locations on the coast against sea-level rise and erosion.’’
The vote was taken the same week that a national panel of 300 experts warned that the U.S. already is feeling the impacts of climate change and surging oceans. Sea level is expected to rise 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century in the Southeast, imperiling marshes and coastal development, the report said.
Beach and Nancy Cave, who runs the league’s north coast office, said their organization will fight the watered-down bill approved Thursday and sent to the full House. The S.C. Nature Conservancy also opposes the bill the committee passed. The legislation has gotten through the Senate and insiders say it has a good chance of passing the Legislature by early June.
Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, cast the lone vote against the bill Thursday, saying it sets a bad precedent for South Carolina. She said she’ll try to stop the bill in the House.
At issue are two key sections of a bill, based on a blue ribbon commission’s recommendations in 2013, that was intended to strengthen beach protections in South Carolina. But it has been amended heavily as seaside property owners and developers complained about stricter regulation.
One section grants the gated community of Debordieu Beach an exemption from the state’s ban on new seawalls, a prohibition that has stood since the Legislature adopted a major coastal management law in 1988.
New seawalls are illegal in South Carolina because they make beach erosion worse when hit by the ocean. Cave and other opponents said granting and exemption for Debordieu will lead to similar requests from other communities, which would undermine the seawall ban. Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, said he’ll use the Debordieu exemption to argue for a bill he has been pushing for Folly Beach near Charleston.
The bill approved Thursday allows a handful of Debordieu property owners to rebuild a failing seawall that juts far onto the beach and is pounded daily by waves. The Georgetown County landowners would have seven years to repair or reconstruct the wall. The wall could be built up to two feet farther onto the beach.
“If it wasn’t for that wall, there are several multi-million dollar homes that would go into the ocean,’’ said Rep. Ted Vick, a Chesterfield County Democrat who is moving to Pawleys Island near Debordieu. “That is not good for the environment, I contend. Y’all may have a different opinion, but we need to do what we can to help these residents and to help our state.’’
Vick said not giving people help could expose the state to expensive lawsuits from the homeowners.
Those living behind the aging Debordieu seawall include retired corporate executives, real estate developers, retail business owners and former state policymakers. Some have hired ex-coastal regulator Wayne Beam to lobby the Legislature. Fewer than 25 houses are behind the wall at Debordieu, a community south of Myrtle Beach with more than 1,200 developed home sites.
Another part of the bill approved Thursday would delay plans to limit development farther out on the beach. The plan would prevent an oceanfront building restriction line from ever being moved seaward. But instead of banning the seaward movement of the line this July, as proposed, the restriction would not take effect until 2021, the agriculture committee agreed.
“Does that give everybody enough time to do what they need to do?’’ asked Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens. “It’s basically shutting it off forever.’’
Committee members voted for the delay after developers at Kiawah Island spoke against a ban on moving the line seaward, arguing that their beach is building up and should have flexibility in construction along the beach. The area of concern is around Captain Sam’s spit, a part of the island near Charleston that has spurred major battles over planned development.
The issue of moving the building line seaward has been a hot one in South Carolina in the past. Current state law allows the line to be moved seaward and more intense development to be built closer to the ocean after renourishment projects artificially widen beaches.