Report: S.C. needs tougher beach law

Two decades after South Carolina adopted a sweeping beach protection law, the state has failed to keep new development from encroaching on the seashores and sand dunes that define the coast - and in some cases is subsidizing private oceanfront landowners, a new report says.

The long-awaited 150-page report, prepared for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, calls on the Legislature to tighten a 1988 law that was supposed to stop construction of new homes, hotels and condominium buildings close to the beach.

The "retreat" policy was intended to be a cornerstone of the law. South Carolina's beach law has limited some development, but "has not resulted in a broad-scale retreat from the oceanfront beach-dune system," the report says. "Continued coastal population growth, expansion of tourism industries and trends in investment homes and second properties have resulted in even greater pressure to develop or redevelop beachfront properties." The study says the state needs to stick with and strengthen the retreat policy.

The study, released Friday, was prepared by a 23-member panel of scientists, college professors, business people and government officials at the request of DHEC. Their charge was to examine how South Carolina is managing its coast and what steps could be taken to improve. The report will be forwarded to the Legislature early next year for possible action on 13 recommendations. The public has until Dec 4. to comment before the report is final.

"We are reflecting on the past 20 years and looking at how we will be for the next 20 years and beyond," said Braxton Davis, a DHEC coastal division staff member who worked with the committee. "The committee has recommended a number of steps the state should consider that may put us in a better position to reduce risks from storms, sea-level rise and chronic erosion."

The 1988 Beachfront Management Act recognized that miles of South Carolina beaches were critically eroding and imposed tighter limits on oceanfront development that had contributed to the problem. At the time, waves were crashing against oceanfront structures, making beaches in places like Garden City and Cherry Grove erode more quickly. The law imposed a ban on new seawalls as a way to combat erosion, in addition to calling for new development to be built farther back from the ocean.

Since the law passed, the state also has attacked the erosion problem by replenishing beaches with sand dredged from offshore. More than $200 million in public funds has been used to temporarily widen beaches and protect coastal property. That's part of the reason the retreat policy hasn't worked, the study said.

DHEC's interpretation of the 1988 law has loosened development restrictions on several hundred seaside lots, often as a result of renourishment projects, according to a report in The State newspaper last year.

DHEC's interpretation has allowed for construction of condo towers and magnificent homes on some of the state's most flood-prone beaches after renourishment widened the seashore, the newspaper found. Much of that has occurred at North Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island. Specifically, DHEC has moved seaward an imaginary line that was supposed to restrict oceanfront development.

The committee's report says the Legislature should tighten the law to prevent that from happening. It's important because sea levels are rising as much as 1.5 feet per century and more intense coastal storms are expected in coming decades, according to the study. At the same time, it's uncertain if enough sand can be found to continue renourishment in the long run, the report says. Perhaps most importantly, the report says federal and state funding for future beach renourishment projects is uncertain.

More intense development near the beach can cost the public dearly if a major storm damages seaside buildings. Taxpayers sometimes have to subsidize federal flood insurance bailouts, as well as pay for emergency disaster funding. Building too close to the beach also can make erosion worse if a major storm hits.

Waves bounce off seawalls and buildings, causing erosion to work faster, and the public to have less beach to walk on.

The shoreline report also said that oceanfront landowners were benefiting from taxpayer-funded renourishment projects.

Coastal lawmakers reached Friday said they had not read the report, but questioned whether the Legislature would have time to address beachfront development in next year's session. With talk of impeaching embattled Gov. Mark Sanford prevalent, Republican Reps. Tracy Edge of Myrtle Beach and Shannon Erickson of Beaufort said beaches would not likely be a priority.

"The schedule is going to make it real tough," said Edge, whose district includes some of the most heavily developed beachfront property in South Carolina.

Overall, the report recommends 13 ways to better protect shorelines on the state's oceanfront and in salt marshes. Those recommendations include:

- Never moving the state's oceanfront building restriction line seaward, as has been done numerous times in the past decade.

- Setting back new development at least 50 feet from the beach. Existing setback lines are a minimum of 20 feet.

- Putting aside money for the state to buy oceanfront land to keep it from being developed. The state should also consider buying developed, storm-damaged property, the report said. Waties Island in Horry County, Morris Island in Charleston County and Pritchard's Island in Beaufort County have the greatest stretches of undeveloped beaches that could one day be developed, the report says.

- Encouraging local governments to establish their own beach building rules, as has been done on Hilton Head Island. The town recently passed a law that limits new buildings close to the beach after leaders became frustrated with what some say were failed DHEC efforts.

- Figuring out how much sand South Carolina needs to renourish beaches and finding offshore sand deposits that can be dredged.

- Tightening regulations to protect marshes from development. Moving away from using bulkheads and rip rap - which are used to protect marshfront lots - can actually reduce erosion.