Tom Rice legislation could give gated Inlet Harbour community access to federal funds

dwren@thesunnews.comFebruary 15, 2014 

— U.S. Rep. Tom Rice is sponsoring legislation that would make nearly two dozen of this town’s most expensive homes in the gated Inlet Harbour community eligible for flood insurance and other federal assistance, a move environmentalists say is bad policy and runs counter to the Republican Congressman’s pledge to limit government and reduce federal spending.

The oceanfront and second-row homes are in a zone formed by Congress as part of the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act. Property within the CBRA zone – which includes several points along the East Coast and the Great Lakes – is ineligible for federal aid, such as flood insurance or disaster recovery funds in the event of a hurricane. The act is designed to limit development on environmentally sensitive and storm-prone land. The properties can be developed, but only with private money.

Although the act was passed in 1982, the map including Inlet Harbour in the CBRA zone wasn’t drawn until 1990. Pursuant to the legislation, when the CBRA maps were drawn, existing homes and developed lots were supposed to be grandfathered. Rice said the Inlet Harbour homes were erroneously placed in the CBRA zone because the community was developed in the 1970s and almost all of the homes were built prior to the approval of the CBRA map.

Rice said his legislation is designed to correct CBRA maps that were hastily drawn and include numerous mistakes.

“No physical surveys were conducted when they drew the maps,” Rice said. “It looks like someone just took a red pencil and drew a line over the property. It was clearly a mistake that bureaucracy has held up for more than 20 years. It’s amazing how some things get done up here.”

Rice isn’t the only one trying to clear up perceived mistakes in the CBRA maps – there are 11 pending bills in the House and Senate that would remove properties in the Carolinas, Florida and Rhode Island from the zone. Rice also has proposed legislation that would remove a pair of undeveloped lots near Briarcliffe Acres from the CBRA maps. All of the legislation is pending in committees.

Environmentalists oppose removing properties from CBRA, saying it sends a wrong message about the need for development to retreat from the oceanfront in the face of climate change and increased storm threats.

“We need a long-term solution,” said Nancy Cave, north coast director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “Allowing a few homes to be pardoned is not the solution.”

Cave said it should not be up to taxpayers to subsidize million-dollar homes with flood insurance and disaster aid to rebuild the properties when an inevitable hurricane knocks them down.

“Inlet Harbour is a private community that would become a public problem,” Cave said. “Rice talks about less government, but he’s willing to let the government bail out some people.”

The last major hurricane to hit the area – Hugo in 1989 – did not factor into Inlet Harbour’s qualification for federal money because it predated the CBRA map by one year.

Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, said it is a “fundamental unfairness” to saddle taxpayers with costs that go with developing environmentally vulnerable property.

“That burden should rest with the home owner,” Armstrong said.

Although homes that existed when the CBRA map was drawn have been grandfathered into the federal flood insurance program, property owners would lose that benefit if a storm were to destroy more than 50 percent of their structures. The owners of homes built after the map was drawn must purchase private flood insurance, which is more expensive that the federal option.

While the community’s infrastructure was completed in the 1970s and most of the homes pre-date the act, several have been re-sold since the CBRA maps were drawn.

“Those who purchased the properties knew they wouldn’t qualify for federal assistance,” Armstrong said. “They purchased knowing the risk that they were taking, that the federal government was not going to bail them out.”

Rice said his proposal is not a bailout, but an attempt to set the record straight.

“It’s so patently obvious that this never should have been done,” Rice said, referring to putting the Inlet Harbour properties inside CBRA’s boundaries. Rice said the CBRA legislation was supposed to grandfather all existing developed properties within its maps, but that didn’t happen with Inlet Harbour.

“These residents followed all the rules; they didn’t do anything wrong,” Rice said, adding that the map’s creators “didn’t do their research.”

Gairy Nichols, vice president of the Inlet Harbour Property Owners Association, said he has been working for more than a decade to remove his community from the CBRA maps. He said government bureaucrats tell him they realize a mistake was made, but it literally takes an act of Congress to change the CBRA zone.

There is local precedent for such a change. Toward the end of his political career, the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond removed the Huntington Marsh neighborhood from the same CBRA map that includes Inlet Harbour.

In addition to its environmental focus, the CBRA is intended to save taxpayers money. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the CBRA program, estimates about $1.3 billion has been saved since CBRA’s enactment.

Rice said Inlet Harbour’s residents previously petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the maps changed but the agency wanted residents to pay $40,000 for a survey of the entire zone, which stretches south from their neighborhood through Huntington Beach State Park. Rice said his legislation is an attempt to fix the problem without the expense of a survey.

Rice’s proposal would remove 20 homes and an empty lot from the CBRA map. Those properties have a combined market value of nearly $24.5 million, according to the Georgetown County assessor’s office. Inlet Harbour is in one of 23 CBRA zones totaling 200,253 acres in South Carolina. There are two zones in Horry County – the parcels near Briarcliffe Acres and Waites Island, an undeveloped barrier island off North Myrtle Beach. All told, the CBRA includes 857 sites comprising 3.1 million acres along the East Coast.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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