Sound shoreline policy requires sound science

Drawing the line on building along South Carolina's shoreline has landed in a courtroom more times than we can count.

So it's not surprising that we're back in court again to settle where to set the lines that guide building -- and rebuilding -- on Hilton Head Island.

Science and the requirements of the law should direct these decisions. But all too often, parties in these cases can agree on neither.

What we should agree on is that this is no place for politics. Special legislation to resolve the Hilton Head issue should not be contemplated. That's what happened earlier this year with Fripp Island when property owners there took issue with the state's actions.

The Town of Hilton Head Island and about 50 other island property owners have objected to moving the building lines inland in some areas. That includes valuable property in Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes.

The state looked to data going back to the 1850s to determine erosion rates. The town's lawsuit claims the state did not use any data after 1987 to determine the erosion rates for island beaches.

Under the law's 40-year retreat policy, the setback line must be drawn a distance that is 40 times the average annual erosion rate. Determining that annual erosion rate isn't easy, given the actions of nature and man over the years.

The town makes a good case that the state is wrong to ignore more recent beach survey data in its decision. Why the state ignored data after 1987 is puzzling.

The town also cites its beach renourishment efforts, stating that Hilton Head has spent $35 million for three major projects and that the beach is wider as a result.

That seems reasonable until you recall what town officials said about renourishment two years ago. They told state regulators they should not take into account renourishment when the state moved the line seaward in the Singleton Beach area. That area of the beach had been historically unstable and a groin built there had not been tested. Renourishment should not result in development being allowed to move toward the ocean, town officials said.

We supported that position, and we supported the town setting the baseline for building restrictions at locations determined in 1999. Property owners can't build any major structures closer to the beach than those that already exist. The restrictions extend the entire beachfront, from Fish Haul Creek on the island's north end to Lands End in Sea Pines.

Curtis Coltrane, the town's attorney, says there's no contradiction in the two positions on renourishment. The town doesn't want development to encroach on the beach, but this time, it thinks the state's building restrictions go too far inland.

"The town is also leery of action taken that is detrimental to the property owners," he said. "Most properties affected by the setback line already have structures on them. The landward movement of the setback line captures a lot of property that was not under the state's jurisdiction before."

None of this is easy to sort out. But one thing is clear: Even with its relatively stable source of local funding, Hilton Head can't afford to maintain renourishment at the levels of previous years. Projects are probably going to get smaller and more strategic. If nourishment isn't continued or fails to hold up, homes can be put at risk.

The state last year completed a two-year study of its shoreline management policies and concluded again that a gradual retreat from the dynamic shoreline was the right thing to do. That means at some point, somewhere, a property owner is not going to be allowed to build or rebuild where they might have been able to build before. In other words, somebody is going to be unhappy, and some property values are going to be negatively affected.

Let's just make sure that very sound public policy is based on sound science.