We’re delighted that the House failed to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a bill to let DeBordieu Colony rebuild its battered sea wall. But while Monday’s vote keeps what remains of South Carolina’s beachfront protection law intact for another year, it’s premature to declare victory.
The sponsor of the special exception to our state’s 30-year-old retreat from the beach policy, House Agriculture Chairman David Hiott, told the House he would like to give every property owner along our coast the right to rebuild sea walls. That’s not quite the same as saying he wants to repeal the ban on new sea walls that is central to the 1988 Beachfront Management Act, but it’s frightfully close. And the idea that other areas of the coast should get the same exception is precisely what we warned about when we called on the governor to veto the bill.
Our state wisely banned new sea walls because, while they 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. Indeed, during the House debate on Monday, Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell showed a picture of one house protected by the sea wall, which juts out into the space that is beach on the adjacent property. At high tide, she noted, the only way to get past that house is to walk in the surf, which can be dangerous, especially for children.
Recall, again, that the beaches belong to all South Carolinians, not just the ones who own houses behind that beach.
The reason we can’t celebrate Monday’s victory too much is that while 43 representatives voted to sustain the governor’s veto, another 60 voted to override it — to allow this exception to the law that likely would lead to even further erosion of the law. If this had been a vote to pass the bill, it would have succeeded, even after Mr. Hiott admitted that he’d like to extend the exception beyond the Georgetown County enclave to all of South Carolina’s beaches. We don’t know how the Senate would have voted if the House had overridden the veto, but it passed the bill by a vote of 34-3 earlier this month.
Mr. McMaster has strong environmental credentials, and he is to be commended for rejecting this attempt to undermine this vital protection of our beaches. But he didn’t actually say in his veto message that he supports the sea wall ban. What he said was that our state “has worked for several years to develop a comprehensive statutory and regulatory framework to protect our shared coastal resources” and that it would be “unwise to hastily enact a special exception to the Beachfront Management Act.”
He also noted that since the legislation was crafted to apply only to DeBordieu, it likely violates the state constitution’s ban on special legislation. Instead of tacking an exception the law onto another bill at the last minute, as the House did with H.3700, he called on lawmakers to “debate and decide legitimate policy issues involving our unique shoreline and authorize the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to address such matters through open, public processes.”
That could mean the governor would sign that bill Mr. Hiott wants, allowing homeowners along the entire coast to build new sea walls. After all, he did sign a bill last year that changed our policy from “retreat” to “beach preservation.” Even if that’s not the subtext, Mr. McMaster won’t be governor forever.
Long term, that means we need to make sure we elect a pro-beach governor every time we elect a governor. In the mid-term, it means we need to elect legislators who respect the retreat from the beach concept, which is even more important with sea-level rise than it was at the time it was passed. And in the short term, at least we can breathe easy knowing that public access to our beaches has survived another legislative session.