Science and experience keep bringing us back to a fundamental principle of protecting our shoreline: Hard structures, such as sea walls, rock revetments and groins, hinder efforts to preserve a valuable public resource -- a dry, sandy beach.
That resource is key to our multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.
So it's not surprising that South Carolina's Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management is recommending the state severely limit the use of groins -- stone or wood walls built perpendicular to the beach to trap sand. Interrupting the flow of sand in a beach system usually means that areas down drift of the groin are starved of sand.
The state's landmark Beachfront Management Act in 1988 prohibited construction of groins, along with other hard structures, in the active beach. The state Court of Appeals reinforced that in 2001 with a decision in a Hilton Head Island case. The next year, the legislature changed the law to allow groins under certain circumstances, including that they are built in conjunction with renourishment and that those seeking permission monitor and repair any damage to other areas of the beach.
The Shoreline Management Committee, whose recommendations will go to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the legislature later this year, voted last week to recommend the state allow groins only at the ends of beaches and near inlets that need to remain open for boat traffic.
The committee also has called for an end to allowing new development to move farther onto beaches after taxpayer-funded renourishment projects widen the beach.
Former Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples, a committee member, said the state needs "to get away from what other (towns and cities) have done with groins spread every several hundred yards."
The groins tend to proliferate because once a groin is in place and affecting other areas of the beach, property owners along those other areas want to build groins to trap whatever sand comes their way.
But Scott Liggett, the town's public projects and facilities director, expressed concerns about new limits on groins.
"Clearly, they're not appropriate in all locations and can be built in a way that causes problems ... ," Liggett said. "But they can also be placed and designed in a way that avoids those problems."
The town has demonstrated that it understands the problems such structures can cause. The new $1.6 million, 700-foot groin built to stabilize a recent renourishment project at the Port Royal Plantation beach allows sand to move over the top of the structure so other areas of the beach are not deprived of sand. But not every project is handled as carefully as Hilton Head's.
And we've seen over the years, that state regulators need all the help they can get to hold the line on beachfront development. Allow too much wiggle room and someone will try to exploit it, and regulators will be reluctant to say no without specific instruction and authority to do so. Better to make the use of hard structures rare and possible only under extreme circumstances.
The goal of the 1988 law was to protect the shoreline and its environment by moving people back from the dynamic shoreline system and getting them to build more responsibly in the coastal zone. It should remain the goal, and the Shoreline Management Committee's recommendations to date do just that.