South Carolina's latest "blue-ribbon" committee to study shoreline policy has abandoned the state's 25-year-old policy of moving development away from an eroding shoreline.
The recommendation is not all that surprising; the state's commitment to its retreat-from-the-beach policy has always seemed tepid.
But as officials from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and lawmakers review the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Committee on Shorefront Management, they should keep in mind the overarching goals of the Beachfront Management Act -- to protect the public's dry sand beach and reduce losses from major storms.
Those should remain the goals. They are as important today as they were 25 years ago.
The 1988 law set out the policy of gradual retreat from an eroding shoreline. It banned new seawalls and rock revetments and prohibited the rebuilding of any that are substantially damaged. It also limited the size of new construction near the beach and stopped most new construction seaward of a line based on erosion rates.
The retreat policy has long been a case of theory clashing with practice. Since the law was passed, a lot of new development has moved toward the beach rather than away from it. Much of that is a result of state regulators using expensive public projects to pump sand onto eroding beaches to justify allowing new development closer to the ocean.
It became enough a problem on Hilton Head Island that the town passed its own law in 2008 saying that the state's 1999 line can't be moved seaward. The town, which has relied on renourishment to maintain its beaches since 1990, didn't want to see its efforts used to move development closer to the ocean. That put it at odds with state policy and some oceanfront property owners, but the courts have held that the town's rules can be stricter than the state's.
The Shorefront Management Committee is recommending the state set the line used to measure where building can occur at its location in June 2011 and never move it seaward. Renourishment no longer could be used to move construction seaward of the building restriction line.
Other recommendations include:
(Hilton Head has largely paid for its own renourishment projects since it received $6.25 million in state funding for its first project in 1990. Renourishment projects at state-owned Hunting Island have relied on state and federal funding.)
Recognizing the realities of the state's current retreat policy is one thing, but officials also must recognize the realities of the recommended policies.
The state could see increasing pressure to pay for expensive renourishment projects to protect property. Lawmakers established a fund for renourishment projects years ago, but haven't regularly funded it. These projects aren't getting any cheaper.
If sand isn't pumped onto eroding beaches and properties are threatened, there will be increasing pressure to allow hard erosion-control structures, such as rock revetments or seawalls, to protect property. These structures can make erosion worse, with waves hitting them and scouring the beach. The result can be no dry sand public beach.
An example of this is a bill that would allow new seawalls introduced this session by a Spartanburg lawmaker. The bill came after DHEC sought to remove a seawall built without permission by a Folly Beach owner.
Protecting public resources -- whether it's the beach or taxpayer dollars to pay for storm damage -- must be the guiding principle as these recommendations move forward.