CHARLESTON -- When South Carolina passed its Beachfront Management Act a quarter-century ago, the state officially instituted a policy of retreat to move development away from its almost 200 miles of beachfront.
In reality, it's been only policy, not practice.
"If you look at the coast, it would be hard to conjure up an argument that there has been much retreat," said Wes Jones of Hilton Head Island, the chairman of a blue-ribbon committee working to refine the state's shorefront management laws.
The panel, which has been meeting since 2010 and is expected to make recommendations to state regulators this year, is proposing that the state's beachfront policy be redefined.
Instead of a plan of retreat over 40 years as outlined in the 1988 law, the panel is recommending that the policy be defined simply as preservation of the beachfront and the coastal dune system.
Under existing policy, in theory, if structures were destroyed in storms they would have to be rebuilt farther inland. But that usually doesn't happen.
"You look at what happened to parts of the coast when Hugo came through, and you've got houses bigger and closer to the beach than existed before," said Jones, a former chairman of the South Carolina Coastal Council.
The council was the independent agency that regulated the shoreline before it was folded into the state Department of Health and Environmental Control in the 1990s. Hurricane Hugo smashed into the coast with its 135 mph winds in September of 1989.
Time has shown the retreat policy "is not going to be something acceptable," Jones said. "In some cases it's unfair, and on some lots you can't retreat enough to be practical" to rebuild.
One recommendation the panel will make is that the baseline be permanently set at its location in June 2011 and never be moved seaward. The baseline is the imaginary line running along the shore seaward of which nothing may be built. Its location depends on erosion rates and the width of the beach in the area.
In the past, when beaches were rebuilt with sand, regulators would get calls asking that the line be moved seaward because there was more ground to develop.
But if building were allowed farther seaward, "there's no way to insure that renourishment won't be needed again and there is no way to ensure there will be the resources to do it," Jones said. "The safe thing to do is to keep the baseline where we see it today."
Under the existing law, the line is recalculated periodically.
Other recommendations would ban new groins -- those walls of wood or rock that extend at a right angle to the beach into the ocean to catch sand. While the beach on one side of the groin gets larger, the downstream side loses sand and the beach is scoured away.
Few of the suggested restrictions would affect Hilton Head's beachfront, as most has already been developed, Jones said.
He also said the island has stayed ahead of the severe erosion problems faced in other coastal areas through town-funded beach-replenishment projects.
"Hilton Head has been a leader with its renourishment activities," Jones said.
The 16-member panel was asked to review earlier general recommendations of a shoreline advisory committee and come up with specific language for amending state law. The panel's recommendations go first to the DHEC board and then, if approved, the General Assembly.
"We want the coastal zone rules to make common sense and reflect reality," Jones said.
Staff writer Brian Heffernan contributed to this report.