Shoreline panel scores on major policy vote

A committee reviewing South Carolina's shoreline policies is off to a strong start with a call to stop property owners from building closer to the ocean as a result of taxpayer-supported renourishment.

The Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management's recommendation came on a nearly unanimous vote, another good sign.

It follows the lead of Hilton Head Island, which in 2008 drew a line in the sand on moving building restriction lines seaward after sand is pumped onto the beach. That was a defensive move against the state's doing so after the town paid for beach renourishment.

The 16-member panel -- made up of House, Senate and municipal elected officials and representatives of business and environmental interests -- is reviewing the state's Beachfront Management Act and other policies affecting its beachfront and estuarine areas.

The 1988 law set out the state's policy of gradual retreat from an eroding shoreline. It banned new seawalls and 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 goal is to protect the public's dry sand beach and reduce losses from major storms.

A three-year study by the Shoreline Change Advisory Committee, which issued its report in April 2010, came to the same conclusion reached two decades ago: The state should seek a gradual retreat from an ever-changing shoreline and work to eliminate hard erosion-control solutions that can make problems worse.

We don't expect all votes by the new panel to be so unified. And it only makes recommendations. Those recommendations will be sent to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's board and any changes to the law will have to make it through the legislature.

And there were indications at the recent meeting that we'll see some dissent on the future of the policy of retreating from the beach.

Undoing that would be a mistake. A gradual retreat, as buildings are destroyed, substantially damaged or replaced, is sound policy.

It will become even more important as the cost to renourish our beaches escalates. Those beaches are the lifeblood of the state's$18 billion tourism industry.

The time is coming -- and it may already be here -- when we won't be able afford to repeatedly pump sand on to our beaches, at least not on the scale that we have been doing it.

Hilton Head has learned that with its project to rebuild the rapidly eroding beach at the island's heel. The costs have jumped dramatically while the project has been under consideration. The town will pay for the estimated $12.5 million project by borrowing against expected revenue from its local tax on short-term lodging and by using a $1 million state grant, only the second time the town has turned to the state to help pay for one of its renourishment projects.

Given these escalating costs and the limits of its primary funding source, the town recognizes that renourishment will have to be more strategic in the future.

Protecting the state's beaches is not an either-or situation, but an all-of-the-above scenario.

We need a retreat policy that moves new construction away from a dynamic shoreline. We need rules against hard structures on the beach that exacerbate erosion. We need rules that prevent private development from taking advantage of taxpayer-supported projects.

Moving away from the beach makes long-term financial sense. It preserves a valuable natural resource. It reduces the likelihood and amount of storm damage, and it reduces the cost of federally subsidized insurance and disaster aid programs.

Tough debates lie ahead for the committee, the DHEC board and lawmakers, as policy suggestions work their way into law.

But on this first major policy point, the committee came through with flying colors.