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SC beach building boundaries would stop at existing houses under new bill

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erosion steps side Isle of Palms.jpg (copy)

High tides took out these private stairs as the erosion created an 8-foot escarpment on the Isle of Palms on Thursday, November 29, 2018. A new Senate bill that aims to guide beachfront development passed out of subcommittee Wednesday. File/Staff

A Statehouse bill would make it nearly impossible for beachfront houses to fall on the wrong side of the line that guides beachfront development across the state.

Senate Bill 868 passed its first hurdle Wednesday when it was voted out of subcommittee.

If adopted, it would be the latest in a series of moves that have pushed South Carolina away from a policy of coastal retreat or acknowledging that development will have to move away from the present-day waterline.

Now, state policy is preservation, or protecting coastal structures where they stand, even as sea levels rise and tropical storms intensify.

At issue in the legislation by state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, are the jurisdictional lines the state must draw every seven to 10 years. 

The most recent instance in which the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control updated its lines was in 2017. It left some beachfront property owners panicked. Boundaries that sliced through their houses, or that moved landward of them entirely, left the owners worried they wouldn't be able to repair their properties after a serious storm.

At the time there was concern that DHEC had done the surveys for the lines shortly after a hurricane that caused beach erosion. But the lines had been inching inland in some places already, because most beaches in the state are gradually eroding even without storms.

The 2017 boundaries were eventually rolled back, and the next year, several revisions were made to the state's Beachfront Management Act, including the removal of the word "retreat."

Campsen's bill tweaks how the state will identify the primary oceanfront dune on which the lines are based.

Its biggest impact is in cases where there is no beach dune. Unless there's water regularly washing under a house, state officials will be required to draw the line at the leaning beachfront edge of a house, but no farther inland. 

"You certainly can't ... condemn that property because you're pretty confident it's not going to be there in 20 years anyway," Campsen said. "Let (the property owner) see if it is or not." 

In the past, landowners who have found themselves on the wrong side of a line have been able to apply for a special permit to build anyway. DHEC has never officially denied a permit, issuing 62 since 1991.

That's why Rob Young, who studies developed shorelines at Western Carolina University, considers the discussion over setting the lines "semantics." Stronger beach policy, he said, would create a buffer zone between development and the beach, keeping property further from harm's way.

"In the state of South Carolina, we’re not doing a very good job of having people set back any reasonable distance from the ocean," Young said. 

The permits do have an important provision embedded in them, said Amy Armstrong, an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. If the beach erodes under a house with a special permit and water starts washing under it, the owner is liable to remove it themselves. 

"Does the state see it as an important policy for us to have a plan when that happens?" Armstrong asked. 

 If future beach lines allow houses built closer to the ocean without permits, she added, "it will lead to litigation."

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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