In a state battered by hurricanes and rising seas, legislators are siding with oceanfront landowners in a fight against tighter controls on beach development.
The S.C. Senate voted 41-0 on Wednesday for a bill that abandons the state’s 30-year-old policy of retreat, an effort to push new development away from the state's storm-scarred beaches. Senators also agreed to block looming rules that would restrict development near the ocean.
Already approved by the House, the bill needs only a routine final Senate vote before it goes back to the House for its action on Senate-added amendments. It then would go to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has expressed sympathy for property owners.
One prominent coastal geologist blasted the Senate’s action, saying it will help oceanfront landowners at the public’s expense. Blocking tighter oceanfront building rules could allow for more intense development close to the ocean — and that’s a problem, said Western Carolina University scientist Rob Young.
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Buildings constructed on the beach limit public access for vacationers, while putting more pressure on the state to launch expensive, taxpayer-funded renourishment projects to protect the seaside investments, said Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
Taxpayers also face the cost of bailing out oceanfront property owners after major storms damage homes and hotels.
“It’s a shame the state of South Carolina is not acknowledging the fact that there are portions of the beach where we need to encourage people to take a step back,’’ Young said. “That is what the retreat policy was all about.’’
The legislation, pushed by state Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston and S.C. Rep. Lee Hewitt of Murrells Inlet, is intended to help property owners upset by new rules that could restrict development on their land.
State regulators had proposed tougher building restriction lines in areas where beaches are eroding and the ocean is eating away the coast. Those areas included parts of the Grand Strand, Hilton Head Island, and Charleston-area beaches.
Campsen, a Republican who lives on the Isle of Palms, maintains the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control did a poor job of setting new building restriction lines, arguing the proposed lines were not based on good science. That forced legislators to step in, he said.
The lines limit development past certain points on the beach.
“We had citizens up and down the coast who were just very concerned because this happened," Campsen said of the tighter rules DHEC proposed in 2017. “It was short notice and an abbreviated process.’’
The bill that Campsen sponsored allows property owners to ignore DHEC’s 2017 proposal if its new lines would restrict development further on their oceanfront land. Property owners can go by existing rules until the state does another study in 2024 to determine whether tighter restrictions are warranted, according to the bill.
Young, who served on a S.C. committee that recommended tightening state restrictions of coastal development, said he looked at DHEC’s methods in setting the development lines and found them scientifically sound.
But, he added, “Property owners are starting to complain, and the Legislature is responding to these complaints by trying to micromanage all of these coastal erosion issues.’’
Because of climate change, sea levels are expected to rise anywhere from 1 to 5 feet along the South Atlantic coast by the end of the 21st century, scientific studies show. During the past century, South Carolina already has experienced a 1-foot rise in sea level. In recent years, the state also has been hammered by historic floods and Hurricane Matthew, heavily eroding beaches.
South Carolina, a state that draws millions of vacationers to resorts including Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, agreed in the late 1980s to adopt the coastal retreat policy after high tides blasted the coast during a rare storm. The law established lines that limited new development near the beach. It also banned new seawalls inside state jurisdiction.
The bill approved Wednesday is in sharp contrast to legislation approved two years ago, intended to further restrict coastal development close to the ocean
This year's bill boils down to how close to the beach property owners can build and what they are allowed to build. On certain sections of the coast, the Senate-approved legislation would allow developers to erect high-rise condominium buildings or hotels where beach cottages now sit, records show.
Emily Cedzo, a program manager with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the bill isn’t ideal, but it does include a provision that freezes development from moving closer to the ocean.
“The bill that passed today is certainly a compromise,’’ she said. “It does uphold the most important piece of shoreline policy: that is the baseline will never move seaward.’’