Commission aims to stop construction from creeping ever closer toward sea

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 16, 2013 

In the years since Hurricane Hugo wrecked South Carolina’s coast, state regulators have allowed more people to build closer to the ocean than ever before.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way under a 1988 law intended to gradually push development back from the beach. But conflicting sections of the law prompted state regulators to approve high-rise hotels and houses farther out on the beach, even though the structures became more vulnerable to future storms.

Now, a coastal study commission says that should change. After nearly two years of work, the state commission says South Carolina should clarify the law to prevent the march of development toward the sea.

That seaward march is likely not an issue in Myrtle Beach, according to city spokesman Mark Kruea. He said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the recommendations from the commission, but most of the city’s guidelines already are more restrictive than what the state requires.

For example, Kruea said, the setback line in Myrtle Beach is farther landward than the state’s line.

“Those rules are for erosion prone areas – which Myrtle Beach is not – and the southern coastal area where groins are allowed and oceanfront development is allowed closer than we permit,” Kruea said.

The recommendations, approved Wednesday, are being made as the nation refocuses attention on rising sea level, climate change and the cost of killer storms on coastal communities.

Billions of dollars in federal aid are being sent to the northeastern U.S. to help victims of Hurricane Sandy last fall.

Elizabeth Hagood, a former state regulator and member of the South Carolina study committee, said that while the memories of Hurricane Hugo may have faded in the Palmetto State, Sandy should resonate with every South Carolina resident.

“If Sandy had hit us, we would have a more sharp view” of the need to better control seaside development, she said.

Wednesday’s recommendations will be contained in a report to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board and eventually to the legislature. The Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management wrapped up its work during a meeting in Columbia.

The proposed changes are considered modest because they don’t offer new ideas on how to regulate beach development or how to realistically move existing development back from the beach. They also grandfather existing development in some cases.

Still, the recommendations do address some of the loopholes and questionable interpretations of the 1988 law.

Development too close to the seashore not only exposes buildings to greater damage from hurricanes, but it can erode the beach the public uses to walk on.

Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, said he thought the suggestions were responsible. Cleary is one of the elected officials who serves on the commission.

Among the recommendations in the report, which will be available for public comment later this winter, are calls for South Carolina to:

• Stop allowing hotels, condominiums and other new development projects to jut far out on the beach. The state should not move its primary building restriction line seaward, a practice that allows development closer to the beach.

• Stop allowing new houses of more than 5,000 square feet to be constructed in areas touched by state building restriction lines, or setbacks.

• Stop allowing new or expanding golf courses to be built on the oceanfront past the state’s building restriction line.

• Ban new groins – rock and wooden walls that extend into the ocean – except in limited circumstances.

• Stop letting cities and counties issue emergency orders for property owners to protect beachfront property with sandbags. The state would take sole authority over this practice.

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this report.

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