We all pay a big price for bad shoreline policy

The Island Packet

Beachfront development policy ultimately comes down to this: We can pay now or we can pay much, much more later.

South Carolina’s 21-year-old approach of gradual retreat from the shoreline is a product of sound science. It should not be weakened, especially when we now know even more about rising sea levels and climate change than we did in 1988 when the Beachfront Management Act became law.

The state’s Shoreline Change Advisory Committee, set up by the Department of Health and Environmental Control, has been holding public meetings before drafting recommendations to update the state’s management policies and regulations.

The first goal of that group should be to strengthen — not weaken — the state’s ability to manage development along a vulnerable coastline. The ocean will win, and we will pay for development where it doesn’t belong.

The rub on Hilton Head Island is the state’s decision to move seaward a portion of the line that determines how close to the beach a property owner can build.

That seaward shift comes at a price — about $16 million for beach renourishment paid for by the Town of Hilton Head Island in 2007, about $40 million in total since 1990. The town made that investment because it recognized what a healthy, stable beach meant to the island’s economy and property values and to protecting both from storm damage.

It did not make that investment so that risky construction could move closer to the ocean.

In the face of the state’s wobbling, the town has moved to expand and toughen its own rules to make sure development doesn’t move toward the ocean, particularly as a result of costly beach renourishment efforts.

The town’s Dune Accretion and Critical Storm Protection Area would set the baseline for building restrictions at 1999 locations. Property owners could not build any major structures closer to the beach than those that already exist.

Renourishment’s aim is to hold ground, not advance toward the ocean. It was an expensive, but reasonable, answer to the state’s prohibition against new hard structures, such as rock revetments and sea walls. Those “solutions” only exacerbate erosion, and the state should maintain the requirement that existing structures damaged more than 50 percent be removed.

Society as a whole cannot indulge risky construction for short-term gain. That’s what we do when we allow construction in areas we know are vulnerable, whether it’s along a flooding riverbank or an eroding beach.

We need only look south to remind us of the consequences. The state of Florida faces an actuarial tsunami when it comes to insuring vulnerable properties. The state’s catastrophe fund for reinsurance faces a shortfall of $15 billion or more if a major storm hits. The state’s taxpayers would be on the hook for the losses. Gov. Charlie Crist last week vetoed a bill that would have allowed private insurance companies to sharply raise their rates. He worries about people being priced out of their homes; private insurance companies worry about staying in business, so many are pulling out. The state-run Citizens Property Insurance is becoming the insurer of first resort, not last resort.

That’s why Crist and many others are pushing for a national catastrophe insurance fund to spread the risk. That means all of us would bear the cost of bad decision-making. Such a fund makes it all the more imperative that state and local governments across the country do what they can to reduce that risk.

We can pay the piper now, or we can pay the piper more later, but the piper will be paid.