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Editorial: Don't weaken South Carolina's beachfront laws

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High tide waters wash up against uninhabited homes along the coast of Harbor Island. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A number of “reforms” have chipped away at South Carolina’s forward-thinking 1988 Beachfront Management Act over the past three decades. It began after Hurricane Hugo’s wrath spurred a massive wave of rebuilding — and demands to loosen the law. And in 2018, the Legislature struck at the ideological core of the act by replacing in the legal text the word “retreat” with “preservation.”

Now come two bills that would further erode the act. Both should be defeated.

One by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, would move the “no-build” baseline seaward of homes whose lots are partially or completely seaward of the 2017 baseline. In most cases, that would ensure homeowners could rebuild in case of storm damage.

But there were already exemptions built into the law before the most recent lines were redrawn. And the state has never denied a building permit for owners whose already-built homes are damaged. Those permits, however, require property owners to remove their homes if normal tides start washing under them.

Practically speaking, Sen. Campsen’s bill would affect several dozen homes on Edisto, Pawleys Island and Litchfield beaches. Technically, the bill hinges on how the primary dune line is determined. Politically, the bill aims to soothe the worries of property owners who unrealistically fear their beachfront homes could be condemned.

Rob Young, an authority on shoreline erosion at Western Carolina University, characterized the technical aspects of Mr. Campsen’s bill as “semantics,” telling Post and Courier reporter Chloe Johnson the wiser move would be to create a buffer zone between the beach and any development — the exact intent of the 1988 law.

Of course, Dr. Young is right. Climate change and sea level rise alone are reason enough to embrace a policy of retreat. Also, part of the idea behind the 1988 law was to protect taxpayers from essentially subsidizing beachfront homes through the already beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program.

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The other bill, by Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, is an attempt to make an end run around Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a bill last year that would have allowed DeBordieu Colony to rebuild its 4,000-foot seawall, which was constructed before the 1988 law banned such structures. Now, seawalls cannot be repaired if they are 50 percent “destroyed beyond repair” on a lot-by-lot basis.

Mr. Hewitt’s bill would require the state to calculate damage to the seawall not on a lot-by-lot basis but as a whole. That would make it harder to declare the seawall destroyed, thereby opening a path for continually repairing the seawall, which survived Hugo mostly intact, or rebuilding it entirely. If a large section of the wall were to fail, about 10 homes would be in imminent danger of collapsing into the surf.

Rep. Hewitt is looking out for the interests of his constituents, which is understandable. But while seawalls temporarily stop erosion on the property immediately behind them, they actually worsen erosion to the adjacent property. And in front of them. So they eat away at the beach, which belongs to all of us.

And, sadly, the reality is that no amount of legislation can hold back a rising sea, just as no amount of litigation can hold back a hurricane.

Abandoning the policy of retreat was a mistake made by lawmakers with a short memory. They shouldn’t compound that mistake by passing either of these bills. A strong reminder of why is surely coming. We just don’t know exactly when.

Editor's note: This editorial has been updated to correct an error. Sen. Campsen's bill would affect homes at Edisto, Pawleys Island and Litchfield beaches.

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