It appears that neither science nor economics nor a statewide blue ribbon commission holds sway with many South Carolina legislators. But wealthy property owners and well-connected real estate developers manage to get their attention.
A vote last week in the House Agriculture Committee wasn't even close. Eleven members voted to relax laws that protect South Carolina's beaches. One member voted not to. An earlier version of the bill passed in the Senate handily.
If the full House goes along with its committee, the winners will be the owners of about 25 houses at Debordieu near Pawley's Island. They want to rebuild a seawall that juts onto the beach and protects their multi-million-dollar houses from erosion. And they want to add two feet of beach to the protected area.
Developers at Kiawah Island could win, too. They want to build 50 houses on a fragile spit of land at the south end of Kiawah Island, but they are facing opposition. The committee would delay for seven years implementation of a law that would hinder their project. The delay could give them the time they need.
So in one bill, the Legislature stands ready to defy science, ignore the advice of the very people chosen to help them make good beach policy and possibly hurt the state's tourist economy which depends on public beaches.
And if the bill is approved, already Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, has said he'll use the Debordieu situation as a precedent to push for a bill that would allow seawalls at Folly Beach.
Scientists have shown that building seawalls causes erosion down the beach. And over time, there is less and less beach for people to use. It's either walled or eroded.
Present state law wisely bans new seawalls. Exempting the Debordieu property owners would be a regressive precedent that will be used to leverage other damaging erosion control systems elsewhere in South Carolina.
And by delaying implementation of a provision to limit development farther onto the beach, legislators would be inviting more home and hotel owners to build on unstable sites. Eventually they will want to build seawalls of their own when the ocean gets too close.
Some committee members said that failing to help property owners in their efforts to stave off the ocean's march would expose the state to expensive lawsuits. That's debatable. In any event, they didn't say how that risk would compare to the loss of tourist dollars if beaches are inaccessible to visitors.
Katie Zimmerman, program director with the Coastal Conservation League, told reporter Bo Petersen, "Nearly everyone in the state, if not the nation, understands the folly that would be developing Cap'n Sam's Spit, and the fact that we now have state legislation being tweaked to accommodate [it] is incredibly damaging to our natural and economic resources."
Currently the law calls for re-evaluating every 10 years the line beyond which no building can take place. If the beach has accreted, property owners can build closer to the ocean.
But since history shows that beaches that accrete can also erode, allowing building to follow that accretion is unwise. The Senate has recommended making the development baseline permanent as of July.
The full House should recognize sound science and economics and should reverse its committee's ill-conceived changes.
Telling some homeowners and developers "no" is a lot easier than telling the public, years from now, that they no longer have a beach to enjoy.
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