Retreat still best tactic for protecting shoreline

As a newly formed commission tackles controlling development along South Carolina’s shores, its members should keep this foremost in mind:

If we want to reduce the long-term risks and costs of building along the oceanfront, we must gradually retreat from the constantly changing shoreline.

That was true in 1988, when the state passed its Beachfront Management Act, and it’s true today. A three-year study completed earlier this year came to the same conclusion.

The study also reached another critical conclusion: Hard erosion-control solutions can make problems worse. Armoring our shoreline is not the answer.

The Shoreline Change Advisory Report, commissioned by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, will guide this new 17-member committee, which includes state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, outgoing Hilton Head Island Mayor Tom Peeples, state Rep. Bill Herbkersman and local attorney Wes Jones, who led the state’s Council on Coastal Futures in 2004 and is chairman of Bluffton’s May River Waterbody Management Plan Implementation Committee.

The mission of this new group should be to strengthen — not weaken — the state’s ability to manage development along a vulnerable coastline. The ocean will win in the end, and we will pay if we allow development where it doesn’t belong.

The advisory report was developed by scientists, business people and government officials. The process included multiple public hearings. Its main goals:

Minimize future risk to beachfront communities.

Improve planning for renourishment projects.

Limit the use of hard stabilization structures.

Improve the management of the shoreline in estuaries.

The study was commissioned because state officials say the 1988 law has not worked as intended. Parts of the state law are at odds with one another: While one section calls for gradual retreat from the dynamic shoreline, another section says the state can push forward the lines controlling where development can occur in areas that have been renourished. The line is based on the erosion rate in a particular area.

That contradiction prompted Hilton Head to develop its own rules to ensure that its renourishment projects don’t push development seaward as a result. The dunes systems that result from such policies provide critical storm protection.

On top of that, renourishment costs are escalating. Hilton Head primarily has relied on its 2 percent beach preservation fee, a tax on short-term lodging, to pay for its renourishment projects. But the cost to pump about 2 million cubic yards of sand onto about seven miles of beach has gone from $9.5 million in 1997 to more than $16 million in 2006. The project to pump sand on just a mile of beach at the island’s heel is expected to cost about $12.5 million. That includes building a groin to stabilize the sand.

Town officials now recognize they can’t afford the past practice of building up an expansive beach along the island’s entire oceanfront, whether some areas were eroding or not. More strategic — less costly — renourishment projects are in the island’s future. That approach is in every beachfront community’s future.DHEC’s board will outline the commission’s specific duties and decide whether it should look only at beachfront development rules or also consider the report’s fourth goal: Improving the management of the shoreline in estuaries.

This should be part of its mission. South Carolina has 187 miles of ocean frontage, the reports states, but has 2,875 miles of estuarine shoreline and more than 500,000 acres of salt marsh.

The report warns of the cumulative effects of hard structures in these types of waterways, which include the May, Okatie and Colleton rivers. Since 2001, the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management has issued 835 permits for bulkheads or seawalls and 188 permits for revetments along estuarine shorelines.The state should get out ahead of coming development and its impacts as much as it still can.