Running into the wall; beach barriers made easier by proposed state law?

Aerial of the "Wave Dissapation System" being expanded to protect condos in Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms last week.

Seawalls are no strangers to Lowcountry beaches, even though they are now largely banned. Folly Beach has the remnants of a rock wall in the dunes between homes and the ocean surf. So does Seabrook Island. Sandbag walls now protect condominiums and a golf hole at the Wild Dunes resort on Isle of Palms.

And what remains of a wooden bulkhead nearly a mile long is all that's left between the surf and a few dozen million-dollar homes at Debordieu, a Georgetown County beach community. That failing bulkhead might be about to further cripple a quarter-century-old seawall ban that was hailed in its time as a first in the nation.

An S.C. House committee Thursday revised and passed a bill that would give Debordieu more time and less regulatory oversight to rebuild their seawall, nearly a mile long. The revised bill also has been sought by beach interests up and down the coast, said state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet.

The committee passed the bill after replacing a compromise in an earlier version the Senate passed. The new version gives communities as much as seven years to rebuild a wall, as well as limiting state regulation of it. The Senate version gave three years.

The new bill is expected to go to the full House of Representatives next week and, if approved, would return to the Senate.

Seawalls exacerbate erosion and beaches have literally been swept away in front of them.

But the bill comes as escalating costs stymie community efforts to renourish, or re-sand eroding beaches up and down the coast. Delays in funding for the renourishment now underway at Folly Beach led to waves washing under homes and owners defying the state ban to protect their properties. The severely eroded beach has compromised the effectiveness of the renourishment itself.

Conservationists fear that, if the law passes, more communities will seek the walls.

"If you are allowing one community an exception to the regulation, then other communities can say, 'You gave it to Debordieu. Why don't you give it to us?' It's a slippery slope," said Nancy Cave, of the Coastal Conservation League.

Legislators and supporters say the bill doesn't open the way for more seawalls, just makes it more expedient to shore up existing walls until renourishment can take place.

"Folly Beach and Fripp Island are excluded (from the ban) already. They can rebuild all they want. I don't know what makes them more special than Debordieu," Goldfinch said. "The only way a seawall can be rebuilt (under the proposed bill) is if it's already there, in its own footprint. And you can't (move the wall) seaward, which I think is a win for the environmental groups."

Folly Beach has some exemptions to the seawall ban because erosion there is exacerbated by the Charleston shipping channel jetties stopping the sand flow in shore currents. The Fripp wall pre-dated the ban.

The ban is part of a state policy now being revised that restricts beachfront building to protect the public beach. The policy was considered "cutting edge" in the 1980s. But against a massive economic and cultural push for lucrative beachfront development, it progressively has been weakened by lawsuits from property owners who say it's too restrictive.

The lawsuits have made enforcing the policy so unwieldy that regulators, development and conservation interests each sought their own revision.

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