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Rising seas put brakes on developers’ march toward the ocean

Developers built towering condominium projects on land that was freed from oceanfront building restrictions at Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach. The state loosened the rules because taxpayers spent $20 million widening the beach at Cherry Grove, a section of North Myrtle Beach long known for its beach houses and homey feel. State legislators are tightening the rules after years of discussion.
Developers built towering condominium projects on land that was freed from oceanfront building restrictions at Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach. The state loosened the rules because taxpayers spent $20 million widening the beach at Cherry Grove, a section of North Myrtle Beach long known for its beach houses and homey feel. State legislators are tightening the rules after years of discussion.

COLUMBIA, SC Following years of debate, South Carolina took steps Wednesday to stop developers from building high-rise hotels, condominium buildings and other major projects close to the ocean after taxpayers spend money to renourish public beaches.

The S.C. House passed a bill that will close a loophole in state law that has allowed new construction closer to the ocean when renourishment projects temporarily widen the seashore.

While the legislation gives a short-term reprieve to developers at Kiawah Island and other places, the lower chamber’s action is considered a significant, long-term step to prevent construction farther out on the beach at a time of rising sea levels.

The Senate already has passed the bill, meaning the measure now goes to Gov. Nikki Haley for final approval following a routine final vote in the House. The new restrictions are to take effect in 2018. The House vote was unanimous Wednesday.

Tightening the law “means our beachfront is protected from ill-advised development,’’ said Katie Zimmerman, an official with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League in Charleston. “We have communities now trying to retroactively solve problems that resulted from building too close to the ocean. Now, we have a strong policy in place that will prevent further (construction) from going forward in areas where it should not.’’

South Carolina has struggled for decades with how to control oceanfront development in a state that attracts millions of visitors to its beaches every year. A 1988 state law was intended to gradually push development back from the oceanfront because of concerns about property damage and the loss of public beach when people build too close to the sea.

The law never accomplished that goal because of legal challenges and exemptions, but it also contained a loophole that allowed new seaside development even closer to the ocean after renourishment projects temporarily widened beaches. That occurred in parts of Hilton Head Island and at Cherry Grove, a section of North Myrtle Beach with a history of flooding, The State newspaper has found. Taxpayers, at one point, had spent $60 million widening beaches before regulators allowed new development to move toward the sea.

Critics have said it’s a bad policy because the extra sand will eventually wash away, exposing more intense development to hurricanes and rising sea levels. Several years ago, a special coastal study panel recommended closing the loophole as sea level rise became an increasing concern.

Fueled by the earth’s changing climate, sea levels are expected to rise anywhere from one to five feet along the South Atlantic coast by the end of the 21st century, threatening oceanfront beach cottages, hotels and other structures, according to a 2013 climate assessment by more than 100 scientists and researchers. The state has experienced a 1-foot rise in sea level in the past century, federal officials say.

Specifically, state law has allowed the Department of Health and Environmental Control to move an imaginary line that restricts development, toward the ocean when beaches build up -- whether naturally or artificially through renourishment projects. The agency resets the line every 8 to 10 years and can also move it landward when beaches erode. The new law freezes the line from ever being moved seaward after Dec. 31, 2017.

Because the bill approved by the House doesn’t take effect until the end of 2017, developers along the coast have a chance to ask DHEC once more to move development lines seaward. The agency would make a determination based in part on historic erosion rates, but those decisions can be challenged. In an email to The State newspaper, the department said it expects to begin a review of whether to move the lines this year.

At Kiawah Island, developers at Captain Sam’s spit have argued that the beach is building up naturally, so the line should be moved toward the ocean. They succeeded in holding up the bill and having the effective date of the law delayed. That could allow time for DHEC to move the no-development line toward the ocean. Moving the line seaward is important to give developers room to construct the high-end project because Captain Sam’s spit is so narrow.

The push to delay the effective date of the freeze produced a series of heated exchanges in the Legislature, including a dispute between a representative of Kiawah Development Partners and a state House member. Those attending a recent committee meeting said the exchange occurred after the committee decided not to delay the effective date of the line beyond 2018.

Wendy Kulick, a Kiawah Island resident for 27 years, said the bill is good for South Carolina overall, but she said it’s a shame the freeze on the seaward march of development doesn’t take effect immediately. Kiawah developers have fought for a decade to build the project, many of the battles in court.

“They’ve been thwarted at every opportunity and now they have turned to the Legislature to try to amend a fabulous bill that would protect the coastline,’’ said Kulick, who traveled to Columbia last week to monitor the progress of the bill at the Legislature.

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