Panel: Protect beaches from development

A law that lets developers build close to the beach at taxpayer expense drew criticism Tuesday from a commission studying how to improve the 23-year-old coastal management act.

Several members of the state’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management said South Carolina should consider tightening the law as sea level rises and beach erosion threatens the coast.

“Don’t do any further harm, that’s the bottom line,’’ committee member Terry Richardson said.

At issue is a state policy that eases seaside building rules when communities renourish beaches to make them wider.

Easing the rules after renourishment projects has allowed construction of high-rise condo towers on flood-prone beaches during the past decade. As a result, millions of dollars in new development projects are vulnerable to storm damage from hurricanes.

While beach widening gives tourists more room to sunbathe, critics say renourishment is artificial and should not subsidize more intense development on the oceanfront.

Loosening development rules after renourishment “is seriously problematic,’’ panel member Elizabeth Hagood said. “That is not a stabilized, long-term beach solution. That’s a point we need to clarify.’’

Commission member Rob Young also voiced reservations about building closer to the shore.

Building too close to the beach is a concern for several reasons, including the expense to taxpayers. Most seaside homeowners have flood insurance, but that does not cover all costs associated with major coastal disasters, which can force taxpayer bailouts. Another concern is that if public renourishment funding dries up, new development could make erosion worse. When waves pound seawalls or buildings, they scour the beach and speed up beach erosion.

The 16-member Blue Ribbon panel did not make any decisions Tuesday, but is looking at whether the state can push development back from South Carolina’s seashore, as called for in the 1988 beach management law. The law says development should gradually “retreat,’’ or move back from the beach.

But that has not happened and the Blue Ribbon panel will make recommendations to the Legislature on whether to continue with the retreat policy.

Some say that can be done if the state improves its coastal law. Others say it is not realistic to retreat from the beach because so much development has already occurred and the oceanfront drives the state’s tourism economy. At the panel’s first meeting last month, some suggested easing building rules for some heavily developed shores, such as Myrtle Beach. The varying opinions on the panel show the challenges it faces in reaching a consensus during the next year.

Virtually everything destroyed in Hurricane Hugo, which blew into South Carolina a year after the beach law passed, has been reconstructed in the same spot or farther onto the beach.

Development restrictions have also been eased on at least 265 lots, mostly in the Cherry Grove section of North Myrtle Beach and at Hilton Head Island.

At Cherry Grove, two major high-rise condo tower projects were built after state regulators moved building restriction lines seaward following a taxpayer-funded renourishment project. Before the building lines moved toward the ocean, only single family homes could be built there. The Cherry Grove community is a flat sand spit and one of the coast’s most flood-prone beaches.

Renourishing beaches costs $2 million to $4 million per mile and many projects last no longer than eight to 10 years, officials said. Since the mid 1980s, more than $200 million, mostly in public funds, has been spent renourishing South Carolina beaches.

Also during the meeting Tuesday, commission members raised questions about whether the state law is too tough on another front. If a big hurricane blasts Myrtle Beach, for instance, many seawalls that protect high-rise hotels might have to be removed. Under S.C. law, seawalls that sustain more than 50 percent damage must be taken out and cannot be replaced. So even if the big hotels survive a storm, they could lose seawalls that protect them from rising seas.

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