Editorial | Worthy Plans for Beach Protection

February 16, 2013 

The report on managing our state’s beaches released this week after two years of study by S.C. leaders is a mixed bag for beach lovers. As you might expect after prolonged negotiations between competing conservation and development interests, it ended up a fairly flaccid, middle of the road report, with no radical recommendations for state lawmakers. As state Rep. Tracy Edge, a member of the committee that put together the document, told us recently, “the report is kind of milquetoast.”

The most notable change, abandoning the state’s policy of pushing development back from the beach, was already undermined by special permits and numerous legal fights that neutered the 1988 law. On the Grand Strand and elsewhere, builders have managed to accomplish just the opposite of retreat, moving development closer to the ocean after renourishment projects expanded the beach. Officially ending the retreat policy would only put in writing what we’ve already known for years: The policy isn’t working, not because it’s a bad idea, but simply because it was never adequately supported, fleshed out with details of how it should actually be used or enforced.

Nevertheless, there are some worthy proposals among the study group’s recommendations: Not allowing new development any farther out on beaches, even if beaches expand via renourishment, is a prime example. And establishing a dedicated source of funding for renourishment projects is another. If state leaders can’t stomach the idea of actually moving homes and high-rises farther from the rising ocean, the next question becomes how to best protect those that already exist. Not moving even closer to the water is an obvious first step.

While renourishment projects have been successful in protecting our area from erosion, the intention of such projects was not – or should not have been – to foster development. Allowing new buildings or expansions onto rebuilt dunes only feeds into the unfortunate perception that these projects are benefits for oceanfront landowners, increasing their property values rather than creating a public good.

The state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control maintains a coastal line for development, past which new structures are not supposed to be built. Yet that setback line has moved seaward in the past as beaches have grown through renourishment, putting those new structures at risk as the beaches erode once more. And in turn, taxpayers who fund beach renourishment projects have been put on the hook to protect those structures through continued and repeated renourishment, to the point that our policy now seems to be one of an indefinite and unending fight with Mother Nature. The ocean sucks away the sand from our beaches and we pay to pump it back to protect the homes and businesses that have sprung up close to the water. The panel’s welcome recommendation to hold the setback line steady, even if beaches are widened, should at least put a stop to risky new projects that require expensive protection.

But nobody is doubting that renourishment will continue to be a necessary part of coastal life, especially here on the Grand Strand, where we’ve already completed more than $100 million of renourishment projects in the last 25 years. With that in mind, the panel’s companion recommendation for regular and dedicated funding for such projects – as well as projects that would minimize the need for renourishment at all – would also be a welcome change. As the group points out, the state trust fund to handle such spending has already been established, it simply hasn’t been reliably or adequately funded, leaving local areas and their delegations to seek supplemental state appropriations or use local funds instead.

Horry County, to its credit, has planned ahead for such eventualities and sets aside $500,000 or more each year to pay for upcoming projects. The state should do no less. Asking the General Assembly to dedicate money on a regular basis rather than piecemeal may be a tall order, but it would go a long way toward planning ahead for such needs rather than hoping the money will be there when we need it.

Finding the method to provide that stable funding source could be the problem, however. One method we don’t support is raising the accommodations tax, a proposal now being pushed in Columbia. The idea is that tourists can bear the brunt of the cost of beach projects, while municipalities could use the money they had devoted to that purpose for other projects. Myrtle Beach, it’s been suggested for instance, could take the money it currently uses on beach maintenance – about $3 million a year, according to city spokesman Mark Kruea – and give it to the local chamber for more advertising. This is not the solution.

If there were a demonstrated emergency need that could not otherwise be funded, perhaps a new tax that the state could issue bonds on to complete a project quickly would be merited. But adding a new tax on visitors (and thus making it harder for our area to compete with cheaper destinations) simply so municipalities can have more flexibility and cash elsewhere is not in the best interest of our area as a whole.

Of course, now that the state’s commission has finished its two-year look at South Carolina’s shoreline and the laws that govern it, the next task begins: getting legislators to pay attention. With numerous reform efforts under way and new issues popping up every day, there is the very real possibility that this report two years in the making will just be left to molder on a bookshelf somewhere. While it may be “milquetoast,” the report does raise important issues all of us who live near the coast – and all of us who pay taxes – should be concerned about, and there are a few worthy ideas in there as well.

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