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The proposed beachfront setback lines could prevent homeowners from rebuilding parts of their homes that fall outside of the lines, which would include more than 100 homes or decks, on Edisto Beach. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A costly tug-of-war continues over setting a controversial beach-building restriction line as state regulators try to carry through with a compromise agreed on last year.

The line would prohibit building on the seaward edge of beach dunes unless an appeal is won. Two bills to alter that rule were heard Wednesday in a state Senate dub committee hearing.

Designed to protect against beach erosion damage, the line could jeopardize a few thousand properties along the coast that are at least partly on the seaward side of the designation. Property owners couldn't build or expand without winning an appeal, a process that can take more than a year and cost at least $1,000.

That could affect property values, as well as insurance rates or coverage, and halt millions of dollars of beachfront real estate sales and construction, some Realtors have said.

Redrawing the line now could cost taxpayers millions of dollars, said Josh Eagle, a University of South Carolina environmental law professor who took part in a panel that crafted the policy calling for the line.

The bills would:

  • Do away with the seaward line, as filed by state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. That bill is being amended.
  • Hold off deciding on the line until the end of 2019, as filed by Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown. That bill was moved to a full committee hearing.

The current law in its entirety needs to be changed because of issues with how, when and where to measure a dune,  Goldfinch said.

"Looking closely at this (line setting) process, I have lost confidence in its objectivity," Campsen said. "There are people's property rights at stake. The public's right to the beach is at stake. Before I do a permanent line, it has to be a line I have confidence in." 

The bills are in deliberation as the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control inches toward revising and adopting the line redrawn in 2016.

Based on long-term erosion patterns the line weaves back and forth along the dunes up and down the coast. Under state law, it must be surveyed extensively and then re-drawn every seven to 10 years.

This time, though, the survey was rushed after the Legislature set a Dec. 31, 2016 "permanent line" 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 "rush job," in Campsen's words, led to a public outcry.

DHEC delayed establishing the line after hundreds of coastal residents, businesses, government officials and even the governor said the deadline was too soon for the public to understand the implications. The agency is taking public comments through April 6 and plans to begin adopting a final line in May 2018, beach by beach.

The line "doesn't keep property owners from using the property. It doesn't prevent building seaward of the baseline. You just need a special permit," Eagle said.

The least expensive, simplest and fairest thing to do is use the line that existed before DHEC resurveyed in 2016, he said. That's the line current property owners have worked with.

But Goldfinch is against that idea.

"How do you draw a permanent line in the sand?" Goldfinch said. "If one exists, it hasn't been measured yet."  

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.