ISLE OF PALMS — The sand-rich end of this barrier island is suddenly eroding. The beach along Breach Inlet is being swept into the sea — a spot where sand usually builds.
A few years ago, it was Wild Dunes resort, on the island’s other end, where erosion undermined condominiums, tore apart the signature 18th hole on the oceanfront golf course and led to a fiasco of washed-away sandbags.
Now homeowners on the “safer” end are watching as the beach drops out from under their dunes walkovers.
Isle of Palms is a prime example of why “beach retreat” is all but dead as a state policy. The dynamics of South Carolina beaches and the persistence in building along them make the policy unwieldy, if not unworkable.
After two years reviewing the policy and regulations, a stakeholder’s committee is recommending largely more of the same when it comes to building on the beaches. It’s not “build, baby, build,” but it doesn’t do a lot to curtail development where it’s already happening.
The committee did tighten some rules, including the use of sandbags.
The controversial policy calls for pulling construction back across the dunes from the beach. The committee of legislators, development and conservation interests recommended more balance between conservation and development.
The recommendations will go the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Board, then to the state legislature.
Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Greek, who is a committee member, said the “centrist” recommendations have a good chance of being approved.
“You can’t erase what’s been developed, and we don’t want to,” Campbell said. “Yet you have to look at the future of what we develop and how to rebuild after a storm.”
The original beach retreat policy, established in 1987, drew a set-back line along the dunes based on the dunes’ erosion during the past 40 years. The more erosion, the farther back the line. The idea was that no one would build or rebuild on the seaward side of that line, unless they won a special permit exception.
The permits quickly became the skirmish line between development and environmental interests, with developers winning in court and the continual court rulings undermining the policy’s regulations like eroding beach.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control put together a committee to study the coast, laws and practices, then a second committee to rework the regulations.
But there are few if any one-size-fits-all fixes for a coast that is in places left natural and in places already developed as heavily as the million-dollar-mile of highrise hotels on Myrtle Beach.
And the oceanfront is just too dynamic. Isle of Palms is a case in point. The problems at Wild Dunes are caused by Dewees Inlet cutting away at the beach as part of the natural southerly flow of shore currents, as well as by sand shoals moving from the inlet that change the flow.
Breach Inlet, on the other hand, is on the “good” north side of that shore-current flow, and usually gains sand. Except there’s a secondary channel along the edge of the inlet that the shifting shoals occasionally push in tight to the beach. Hurricane Sandy shifted those shoals and the channel when it passed last summer.
“It eats away at the toe of the island. So when (another) big storm comes by, there’s nothing (left) to hold the beach and it gets undermined,” said Tim Kana, of Coastal Science and Engineering, who works with the city of Isle of Palms.
The difference is, erosion on the Dewees end persists; the current causing erosion on the Breach Inlet moves back out within a few years. One needs beach renourishment to keep properties in place, one might well not.
As the committees grappled for a fix, the Coastal Conservation League mounted permit fight after fight against special permits for individual property owners, trying to force stricter adherence to beach retreat.
The league didn’t prevail. The committee’s recommendations are what member Nick Kremydas called a fine tuning of existing laws.
“‘Retreat’ really isn’t an option as heavily as the coastline is developed,” said Kremydas, S.C. Association of Realtors chief executive officer.
But at least the regulatory loose ends are tied up that caused a lot of the contention over the original policy, said Katie Zimmerman, league project manager. “It would be nice if it were more stringent,” she said. “But what came out was balanced, and that’s good.”