State regulators no longer require developers along South Carolina's coast to do routine archaeological surveys, and some say the state will lose an unknown amount of its history as a result.

The change -- which took effect during the past year -- stemmed from discussions between the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's Office of Coastal Resource Management and the State Historic Preservation Office.

The previous policy had led to the discovery of many historic sites, such as the village of Childsbury in Berkeley County, said L.M. Drucker, an archaeologist with AF Consultants in Columbia.

Childsbury was built around Strawberry Ferry Landing, a hub of Colonial commerce that once had a racetrack, free school, a tavern and doctors' and lawyers' offices.

All that remains above ground today is a chapel, but Drucker said her archaeological work in the mid-1990s found deposits of artifacts underground that ultimately helped thwart a housing development there and led to the state's purchase of the land.

"The coast is such a primary area for historic settlement and it's getting developed so much, it's a shame," she said of the change. "It's awful for the state to allow that much heritage to go down the tubes."

Only known sites protected

The policy change has been in the works for a few years, prompted in part by developers' concerns about the application process, said Dan Burger, OCRM spokesman.

In the eight-county coastal zone -- Beaufort, Hampton, Jasper, Colleton, Dorchester, Charleston, Georgetown and Horry -- developers must obtain

OCRM land disturbance permits.

They still must address archaeological sites if their property is known to contain any such sites on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But they now may skip this step if there's no documentation.

Rebekah Dobrasko, a supervisor with the State Historic Preservation Office, said the change reflects OCRM's marching orders from 1979.

"Basically, OCRM said, 'While we've looked at the program document and nowhere does it require us to do any identification for historic sites,' " she said. "The site already has to be identified as significant by us. We can't say, 'We think there's significant sites. Go find them.' "

Elizabeth Johnson, deputy State Historic Preservation officer, said if her office has no documentation to explain why a developer's site is important, "how can we expect to explain it to OCRM, who then has to explain it to their developer? You have to know enough about the site to make that particular determination."

Johnson said the Preservation Office has pushed OCRM to require some sort of survey for every project, but "they have not been interested in that."

What will be lost?

Since mid-2010, OCRM has received more than 700 land disturbance applications. Burger said it's unclear exactly how many of them were affected by this change, "but an educated estimate is between 2 percent and 5 percent."

Dobrasko said these surveys have identified some significant archaeological sites in the past, such as a Georgetown County plantation house and a slave row.

"We haven't gotten a good test of what this actually means," she said. "It's hard for me to say -- or anyone to say -- that all these sites are going to be destroyed because I don't even know yet."

Johnson said the protection was never perfect. For instance, some developers did surveys only to have them wind up on their consultants' shelves after their project was abandoned.

When DuPont expanded its plant in Berkeley County, OCRM didn't require a survey, but DuPont did one in anticipation, Dobrasko said. That peremptory survey found a significant site -- the slave quarters for Dean Hall plantation. Its excavation formed the basis for an exhibit at Cypress Gardens.

Mike Trinkley, an archaeologist with The Chicora Foundation, a nonprofit, said the change will wipe out cemeteries, slave settlements, Native American sites and other history that has been covered over by time.

"We will only know after the fact, either through people stumbling on sites that have been bulldozed or through researchers doing work on plats and historic maps," he said. "After the fact, there's not a whole lot of benefit learning what you've lost. It's a useful exercise, but talk about a dismal science."

Trinkley said the costs of these surveys tends to be a very small amount of a developer's overhead, and they have led to a wealth of information about the coast as well as protection of discovered sites.

"The reality is there are far more sites that are not eligible than sites that are found and wind up costing a developer a lot of money," he said.