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South Carolina legislators pass compromise beach 'setback' rules

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More than 100 homes or decks on Edisto Beach would have been left seaward of a do-not-build line under a 2016 state regulation that the South Carolina Legislature has reworked. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A compromise beach-building bill passed by the S.C. Senate this week ends — for now — a long fight over a regulatory restriction popularly called the beach setback line.

The bill limits building any farther onto a beach than where the dunes end, but it doesn't force property owners to rebuild any farther back.

That was the sticking point with previous regulations.

A lingering concern was that as tides and storm concerns rise, millions of dollars worth of property might be left in the middle area and become dependent on expensive beach renourishments.

The compromise now goes to Gov. Henry McMaster's desk for his signature.

The dispute had strangled South Carolina's coastal regulations in lawsuits. Attempts to fix it included a special committee that took seven years to come with a set of building rules that its multiple members could agree upon.

Different-minded legislators took two years to toss the committee's proposals aside. State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, went through 28 drafts to find compromises he thought legislators could live with.

Even what a dune is defined as couldn't be worded in a way considered fair for the entire coast, Campsen said.

The state has set and periodically redrawn the setback line based on long-term erosion patterns. In 2016 the process was rushed after the Legislature set a Dec. 31, 2016, deadline to set a permanent line. 

Thousands of coastal residents and businesses were caught on the wrong side of dunes that had eroded more severely than previously because of recent storms. They pressed legislators, who began tinkering with the rules that set the line.

Both sides won concessions in the latest bill.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control was left to keep periodically redrawing the line — with more limits on where and when — as well as the headache of interpreting and enforcing it. Those are the problems that led to the original legal battles.

"We were successful in upholding one of most important parts of beachfront policy, which is a baseline that will never move seaward in the face of increasingly severe climate impacts," said Emily Cedzo, the land, water and wildlife program director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.

Among other concessions, property owners will be allowed to appeal where the line is drawn.

Ultimately, "it's really an administrative process," Campsen said. "It's not an objective decision. There's inherently a lot of subjectivity in the process."

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