Nobody along the beaches, it seems, saw this coming: just how many of them the state could stop from building or rebuilding.

A few thousand beachfront property owners along the South Carolina coast are just starting realize the jeopardy they could be in as of Dec. 31 — the legislatively imposed deadline after which the state is locked into a proposed control line.

If they end up on the wrong side of the line, owners would find it difficult, if not impossible, to repair even storm damage to their homes.

The measure could grind to a virtual halt millions of dollars of beachfront real estate sales and construction — staggering local economies, Realtors said.

All those properties would be at least partly seaward of that proposed regulatory "baseline." The state announced the divide on Oct. 6 with little advance notice. Half or more of the owners don't know about it yet as the deadline closes in to comment on it, Realtors estimate. Others aren't sure what they can do to oppose it.

The owners are running out of time. The period for public comment closes Nov. 6. Public hearings are scheduled Monday in Beaufort, Tuesday in Charleston and Wednesday in Myrtle Beach.

Unaware

The "ocean" now starts in the hurricane-sandswept front yard of David Cannon's Edisto Beach home. The state's proposed don't-build baseline "goes completely behind my house," he said, a little stunned.

According to a statement from DHEC, the setback area and the area seaward of the baseline are not "no-build" zones. Existing homes may be repaired to their original square footage, while construction and reconstruction of new habitable structures may also be allowed with authorization by the department.

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David Cannon, Chairman of Edisto Beach Beachfront Management Committee, discuss the proposed beachfront jurisdiction lines on Edisto Beach Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Cannon is among 136 property owners on Edisto Beach who would have homes at least partway seaward of the proposed baseline. More than 90 are completely seaward. For stretches of the town, the baseline runs down the middle of Palmetto Boulevard, the beach's main road.

Owners haven't had time to absorb what it means, much less prepare arguments to oppose it, said Matthew Kizer, a town Realtor and member of its Beachfront Management Committee.

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Rick Pinson, at his Edisto Beach house, where the state's proposed setback lines would cut the center of his home in half Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

On Isle of Palms, where dozens of homes and part of a hotel straddle or stand seaward of the baseline, the city has heard from few owners, City Administrator Linda Tucker said. But a letter from the city informing them had just been sent.

"Some of them may still be in the dark," she said.

The only reason state Rep. Lee Hewitt, a Garden City Realtor handling more than 400 vacation homes, learned about the new line was an email sent to state lawmakers, he said.

"Property owners weren't aware of it. Local governments weren't aware of it. The South Carolina Association of Realtors didn't know about it. It's happening so fast it's catching everybody off guard," he said.

"We're getting ready to tremendously impact people without the proper notification. What I'm hearing is we could be heading toward multiple litigations," Hewitt said.

As of early last week, DHEC had received only 28 comments, 24 of them from Edisto Beach, said spokesman Tim Kelly.

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The proposed beachfront setback lines would prevent homeowners from rebuilding parts of their homes that fall outside of the lines, which would include decks, on Edisto Beach Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Line in the sand

You can't build or rebuild seaward of the baseline without a hard-to-win special permit, according to state statute.

The line is drawn based on long-term erosion patterns and weaves back and forth along the dune line, up and down the coast. Under state law, it must be re-drawn every seven to 10 years.

This time, though, the survey was rushed after the Legislature in 2016 set the Dec. 31 deadline in the midst of a controversy over developing Capt. Sam's Spit on Kiawah Island, and before Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma tore up the beaches.

The placement of the line can be appealed by an individual property owner for a year. But the appeal, like a special permit request, costs a minimum of $1,000. Success is no sure thing.

'Hail Marys'

Appeals or permits are chancy and difficult to win, because the purpose of the state's Beachfront Management Act that created the lines is to back off development from places where it exacerbates beach erosion.

DHEC has the option of requiring the owner to move the home instead.

"You might just as well have beachfront property you can't build on," Cannon said. "It's an unknown you don't want to deal with trying to buy a piece of property, especially expensive beachfront property."

With the Legislature not due back in session until January, other options are few. DHEC has to meet the deadline.

"Hail Mary" longshots are being talked about, such as asking Gov. Henry McMaster for an emergency order delaying the deadline. McMaster's spokesman didn't reply to an email asking for comment.

"We're all trying to figure out a way to do something," Hewitt said. "I've got a feeling the public hearings are going to be very emotional."

Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity. 

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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