FOLLY BEACH - Laying out a beach towel this Memorial Day weekend? Take a long look at the spread of sand and decide how much it's worth.
By the numbers
Projects undertaken so far in South Carolina
Cost in today's dollars
Money allocated for the federal share of Folly Beach renourishment 1992-2042
Federal money spent since 1992
Cost of current renourishment
Cost of most recent renourishment in 2005
Sources: Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The bill is coming due.
Folly Beach, like other oceanfront communities across the region, might soon be faced with renourishing its eroding beach sand on its own and finding new ways to pay for it.
The people who use the beach will pay for it, one way or another.
Federal funding is getting miserly. A 1992 settlement that determined the lion's share of federal money to be paid for each needed Folly renourishment, for 50 years, also set a total amount the project could not exceed. With more than 25 years left to run in that settlement, there's not enough money left in the total to pay for another round of renourishment, with costs rising each time.
And storm waves have already washed away some of the newly poured sand of the renourishment currently underway.
To add to the Folly funding pot, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must request the money from Congress - the same Congress that didn't approve the money for the current work.
And the 1992 settlement gives the Army Corps a legal out if Congress doesn't appropriate funds.
Meanwhile, sands are eroding harder at Folly and other "hot spots" across the South Carolina coast for a number of coastal dynamic reasons, so renourishment work might have to be done more often. Costs are skyrocketing, and more people say that if property owners want to protect their beachfronts, let them pay for it themselves.
"It should not be a surprise to anyone that the federal government is out of money," said Folly property owner J.D. McAllister. "Our island's beach would be better off now and in the future if this $30 million (for the current renourishment) had been used to remove the 14 houses which the City allowed to be built which are protruding out onto the public beach."
At least one coastal scientist sees the prospect of states and communities choosing which beach stretches to save and which to let go.
Federal legislators incrementally are backing away from the renourishment business, not willing to pay the rising costs. With funding flatlined, requested projects are backlogged and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is parsing out the work.
"Escalating annual costs in an era of relatively level funding is a concern across all of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works mission areas. (The Army Corps) allocates its available appropriations to those projects that will provide the greatest economic, lifesaving and environmental returns to the nation. Shore protection projects compete for funding against other civil works projects based on those criteria," said Gene Pawlik of the Army Corps public affairs office in an email.
Meanwhile, congressional budget posturing has stymied even allocated funds. Money for the current Folly work was scheduled to be included in the 2013 budget, but an acrimonious Congress never passed a full budget, only a continuing (appropriations) resolution. When the Army Corps finally moved money for the project from other uses, it was under pressure by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
The first time Folly Beach renourished with the set-aside federal money in 1993, the total cost was less than $9 million. The current work is costing more than $30 million. Nobody saw that kind of hike coming. More than 70 percent of the total designated $79 million already has been used.
"Lots of things have changed. Back then nobody thought gas would be $3.95 per gallon," said Lisa Metheney, Army Corps deputy district engineer in Charleston.
A firm estimate is hard to find of how much money has been spent so far to renourish beaches nationwide, but a recent budget amendment proposed by Clyburn said that from 1987 to 2007 the Army Corps alone spent $1.4 billion on renourishment projects nationally. The amendment calls renourishment a questionable practice and notes that many communities are capable of maintaining their beaches without federal aid.
The federal government isn't out of the renourishment business yet. Some legislative support remains.
"My view has always been that where there is substantial private or public investment behind the coastline, it needs to be protected," said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. "Folly Beach is one of the 'anchor tenants' for the tourism we see in the Lowcountry and given that the federal government is partially to blame for the erosion problem, it needs to keep its promise to provide renourishment."
But tight money and tighter fists are the driving trend.
There's no arguing that sandy beach is worth a lot of money to Folly and the entire coastal economy. The most recent S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism estimate puts the value of tourism in the state in 2013 at a whopping $18 billion. About half of those dollars are generated by coastal tourism, according to a 2012 S.C. Department of Natural Resources study.
Beach properties themselves are worth millions if not billions per year in rental and tax revenue.
More than 70 homes have been built on the Folly Beach front row east of the Washout - the most eroding end of the island. Some of the more expensive homes have been built in some of the most vulnerable spots. The total assessed value is more than $65 million - on that mile-long stretch alone. A number of the homes are revenue-generating rental properties. And the 70 properties don't include a number of undeveloped lots.
In order to qualify for federal renourishment funds, a community must provide public access to the beach. But U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staffers say straight up that the job of renourishment is to protect properties not the beach. And that's the rub. The beach doesn't erode away; it moves landward as surf pushes sand, points out Rob Young, a coastal geology professor at Western Carolina University. The beach is still there, unless a hard structure gets in the way. Some homes on the east end of Folly "are incredibly irresponsibly placed," he said. "Keeping the beach in front (of them) is going to be very hard. "How many millions of dollars do you want to spend to try to protect this population?"
But the millions spent so far is a tiny fraction of the money those properties generate, said Tim Kana, of Coastal Science and Engineering. The average cost to renourish a beach in South Carolina is about $40 per linear foot per year, according to a 2010 study he did. The cost at Folly is slightly more than double that. A hard number on the value of a foot of beach is hard to calculate for individual stretches, but with a total in the billions, any foot is still worth far more than its renourishment cost, Kana said.
"The idea of property relocation is nice in theory," he said. But people who invest in those properties would have to be dragged away kicking and screaming, he said. "People equate throwing sand on the beach with throwing money into the ocean, but it's not true," Kana said. "There's a 150-foot spread of beach on the Grand Strand today. Isn't that of some value?"
More and more communities are digging into their own pockets to renourish.
Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission last year paid for its $10 million renourishment on the west spit of Folly, unable to wait for stalled federal funds. Bogue Banks, N.C. owners, who found themselves paying out $2,000-to-$4,000 per year to shore up in their individual properties while waiting for federal money, pooled resources to pay for a $30 million project rather than keep waiting.
Across Florida as well as the Carolinas, governments are eyeing sales taxes, bond referendums and property taxes as ways to help pay the tab.
"It's our understanding the federal revenues aren't going to be enough to do it again.
The towns have dwindling amounts of funds," said Ann Hardy, manager of Brunswick County, N.C., where county voters just rejected a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for the work, but Bald Head Island residents approved a bond. Meanwhile, a number of Folly property owners face gullies in the beach in front of their homes, because erosion before the delayed renourishment tore away their dunes, turning the private property into de facto beach.
The renourishment sand-pouring stopped at the public beach boundary, leaving the gaping, flooded pits The city has told them they must pay for sand to fill those gullies.
"Just like the federal government, we can't spend taxpayers' dollars on private property," Mayor Tim Goodwin said.
The owners are fighting mad.
"The City, the Corps, and the contractor, all knew before this so-called Shore Protection Project was started that much of the beach on the east end of Folly Island would be destroyed by the project," owner McAllister said. They must now correct what they knowingly destroyed."
Similar but bigger disputes are likely to divide communities up and down the coast.
"Years ago people thought the only way you could do these projects was with a federal disbursement. But more and more that's no longer true," Kana said. "They have to decide whether they want to maintain their most important asset. You're not a beach community if you don't have a beach."
Editor's Note: Earlier versions of this story contained an error.
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