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Michael Riffert has been stalled from building a house on the marsh edge of Folly Beach because of the city's 6-month moratorium. Friday, June 1, 2018. Bo Petersen/Staff

Michael Riffert owns two waterfront properties on Folly Beach where he wants to build. Only he can't — not for six months.

That's because of a moratorium city officials passed to give planners time to decide where to allow building in the dunes.

Oddly enough, Riffert's property isn't on the beach. It's on the marsh. The moratorium stops construction at the edge of all waterfront on the island. 

"Basically, we're hosed," Riffert said.

The Folly Beach moratorium passed last week stops building within 20 feet of the edge of the dunes or marsh line. It might be the first consequence of a state legislative compromise bill passed in April, but it won't be the last.

The bill undid the work of a blue ribbon commission the Legislature had appointed to recommend changes to beach regulations.

The measure did one very significant thing: It discarded the former regulatory notion of "beach retreat" — a state policy of gradually forcing construction to be moved farther back in the dunes. The notion was replaced with "beach preservation." In other words, if you're in the dunes you can build and rebuild.

Yet the bill didn't do one very significant thing: Define just what is a dune.

That's been left to the regulatory S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which is putting together a group of people with beach interests to advise the agency on how to define a primary dune, the point seaward where DHEC would restrict building.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. The blue ribbon commission was the same sort of group that wrestled over the same question, leading to a regulatory and legislative fiasco that threatened the properties of thousands of coastal residents and businesses, resulting in the compromise bill.

The concern remains that, as erosive tides and storm surges rise, billions of dollars worth of property might be left in the way, dependent on more frequent and more expensive beach renourishments.

Folly faces that dilemma now.

After a recently contracted $11 million renourishment, the island's severely erosive beach will have been substantively renourshed twice in three years. The city has spent more than $85 million in combined federal and local funds since its first project in 1996, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

But each time the beach has been renourished, some property owners have pushed to build farther onto the renourished beach — to the point where other once-beachfront homeowners found their view blocked by newer houses.

The $11 million project was in response to major erosion after Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma. With that sand lost, high tides were again slipping in between the pilings that hold up homes at the edge of the beach — on dunes that were there only because the beach had been renourished previously.

No sooner than the last renourishment was under way, people were applying for building permits again.

The moratorium "was not brought up to stop development. You can still build on most of the island," said Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin.

The idea is to give planners time to create a city version of what the state is struggling to do — figure out just where building on the beach is no longer relatively cost-effective, much less safe.

"The best way to protect your investment is to be proactive," Goodwin said.

For the builders, "it seems like everything is being done 'off-the-cuff,'" Riffert said. 

One more odd thing: The city is exempt from the state beach-building dune line restriction, because the erosion on Folly is exacerbated by the Charleston shipping channel jetties to the northeast, which block the shore flow of sands that would help regenerate the beach.

In other words, Folly is a special case and doesn't have to do this. But with the city's cost share rising for each renourishment, it can't afford not to draw a line.

That's how serious the dilemma is for other towns along the coast.

The compromise legislation came after the last DHEC redrawing of the primary dune line left thousands of coastal residents and businesses caught on the wrong side of it, when dunes eroded more severely than previously because of recent storms.

They pressed legislators, who came up with the compromise that largely left in place the old lines that had allowed the building while forcing a redrawing of the lines that would leave them be.

"Beach owners certainly are relieved," said state Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, the lead sponsor of the legislation and a real estate agent who handles beachfront properties. "They all understand that they bought on the beach. They understand the risks. They just want a fair shake."

How fair a shake they get won't be decided soon. The legislation gives DHEC until 2024 to draw a new don't-build-past-here line up and down the coast.

But DHEC "can't really proceed with any new drawing without a definition of where the primary dune is," said Bill Eiser, a coastal consultant and former DHEC oceanographer who helped put together the original beach building restrictions.

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.