Sandwiched between the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook, a teardrop-shaped spit of sand and marsh marks the entrance to Capt. Sam's Inlet.

It's one of the area's most spectacular undeveloped beaches, and because it's next to the county's Beachwalker Park, it's the only beach you can drive to without passing through Kiawah's guard gates.

It's also the subject of a high-stakes debate over whether the federal government should subsidize people for living in places where water and land sometimes trade places.

Right now, the land by Capt. Sam's Inlet is in a special zone where the federal government is prohibited from spending money on roads, beach renourishment and government-backed flood insurance. Because of this designation, future homeowners must buy flood insurance through a private company, and such policies can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

At the request of the land's owners, Kiawah Development Partners, U.S. Rep. Henry Brown recently introduced a bill that would remove the area from this protected zone.

The bill notes that developers could build hundreds of homes there, but plan to do many fewer and thus would increase the land's "ecological health and habitat value."

Conservation groups are crying foul, calling Brown's bill an insurance perk for wealthy homeowners at the expense of taxpayers and wildlife.

"Why should we pay for someone else's risky development?" said Nancy Vinson, a project manager with the Coastal Conservation League. "They're just doing this so they can sell the land more easily and make more money."

Shifting sands

South Carolina's poet laureate, Marjory Wentworth, calls barrier islands "restless ribbons of sand." Geologically speaking, they are in constant motion, pushed and pulled by tides, winds and storms. Inlets are particularly vulnerable to erosion, and can change shape in a single storm.

Barrier islands also are often exceptionally beautiful places where people want to visit and live, and during the 1970s and '80s Congress grew concerned that government spending on roads and federal flood insurance had encouraged too many to live in these vulnerable areas, and that taxpayers would have to pick up the tab for hurricane damage and beach renourishment projects.

So in 1982 Congress created the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System to discourage development in particularly fragile coastal areas.

Land inside this system, about 3 million acres from Maine to Texas, is ineligible for federal money or subsidies, though privately owned tracts, such as the land by Capt. Sam's Inlet on Kiawah, still may be developed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes the program as a "unique free-market approach" to conservation that so far has saved taxpayers more than $1.3 billion.

Between 1988 and 1999, South Carolina law was much tougher than the federal laws, preventing any development on Capt. Sam's Inlet, which is formed by the Kiawah River as it flows into the ocean.

That changed in 1999 when the state moved the area's setback, an invisible line in the sand that says where development can and can't go. The change made it possible for the land's owner, Kiawah Development Partners, to build.

But the land was still in the federal Coastal Barrier Resources System, a significant drawback from a marketing and development standpoint.

Inside the zone, an owner of a beach home with $900,000 in coverage and a $50,000 deductible would have to shell out about $40,000 a year, said Allison Dean Love, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service.

Outside the zone, an owner who qualifies for federally subsidized flood insurance might pay $1,600 a year, or 25 times less. (The average flood policy in Charleston County is $578 a year, she said.)

Removing land from the Coastal Barrier Resources System literally takes an act of Congress, so Kiawah Development Partners recently asked Brown and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham to change the land's protected status.

"It's about equality," said Leonard L. Long Jr., executive vice president of Kiawah Development Partners.

Future homeowners on Capt. Sam's Inlet should qualify for federal flood insurance just like other homeowners on Kiawah. He added that Kiawah Development Partners plans to build fewer than 50 homes on 20 acres of the 120-acre spit. The rest of the land will be protected by an easement given to the Kiawah Nature Conservancy.

"While some might prefer to have this land remain undeveloped, that's not an option," Long said. "These lands will be developed, albeit in a careful way that is emblematic of Kiawah."

Pros and cons

On June 26, Brown introduced a bill that would remove about 84 acres from the Coastal Barrier Resources System, mostly along Capt. Sam's Inlet. The bill would add 25 acres of high ground farther inland, including a spot where the Kiawah Island Parkway cuts through, and 153 acres of marsh.

The bill said the developers could build as many as 504 dwelling units on the spit by Capt. Sam's Inlet, but "have indicated a willingness on a voluntary basis to reduce substantially these entitlements and, as a result, reduce allowable density."

This development approach will "increase the ecological health and habitat value" of the inlet area, Brown's bill said. Brown's district office referred questions to the Town of Kiawah, which issued a press statement saying it supports Brown's bill.

Conservationists question the bill's logic.

"I think people will be alarmed by this," said Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League. "It's an important area that should be left as is."

Vinson said she also was concerned about Kiawah's plans to build a 2,783-foot concrete revetment on the Kiawah River side of the spit to control erosion. Kiawah recently submitted permit applications to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"Looking at an aerial photo, it looks like it's designed to prevent the spit from being cut off from the next storm," she said. "You talk about fairness? What's unfair is that (future) homeowners will eventually see this area erode, and then they'll start crying for sandbags and sea walls, just like on the Isle of Palms."

Long gets agitated when he hears comments that his company's development plans will harm the area's ecology.

He said the Town of Kiawah and Kiawah Development Partners have a long history of promoting conservation and preserving endangered wildlife, and that the county park's 50,000 visitors have more of an impact than 50 likely part-time homeowners.

Long said the revetment on the Kiawah River is needed because the river is eating into the island's banks. The structure would slope into the river and be made from concrete donuts with holes that allow plant growth and create a more natural look.

"We're going way beyond the pale to be extra sensitive," he said, adding that Vinson's "flamethrower statements are so unfortunate."

Unusual modification

Orrin Pilkey, a geologist and emeritus professor at Duke University, has studied the South Carolina coast for years, and he described plans to build on Capt. Sam's Inlet as "a crazy proposal."

Pilkey said the inlet is constantly in flux. "In this moment in time, with our understanding of the coming sea-level rise, anything that takes away the dynamics of our islands and increases beachfront development is madness."

It's relatively rare for Congress to modify the Coastal Barrier Resources System.

During the past 26 years Congress made minor changes to three areas in South Carolina, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records show.

One was near a government property in Myrtle Beach that removed three buildings from the zone, another clarified a mapping issue and a third modified the boundary near Huntington Beach, removing several structures on a property's edge.

Pilkey said he would be shocked if Congress agreed to make such a dramatic change to the Coastal Barrier Resources System on Kiawah, given that attempts elsewhere went nowhere. "They've tried to do that in North Topsail Beach (near Wilmington, N.C.), which is crowded with buildings, but they've failed."