South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Access to Coastal Islands - A Regulatory Success
Posted: December 20, 2017

After a decision in February 2005 by the SC Supreme Court that threw out the existing rules governing permits for bridges to coastal islands, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) moved quickly. With more than 2,500 islands dotting the state’s coast, OCRM began an intense effort to write new regulations, including the tasking of a six-member Marsh Islands Advisory Committee to find a consensus among varied interests.

The Committee included development and environmental interests, including SCELP’s own, Jimmy Chandler. After long and difficult debate, the committee reached a consensus and the introductory clause of the purpose and intent of the Specific Project Standards for Tidelands and Coastal Waters / Access to Coastal Island is worth quoting in full:

"South Carolina has several thousand coastal islands, including barrier islands, sea islands, back barrier islands and marsh hammocks. Almost all of these islands are surrounded by expanses of salt marsh, occasionally bordered by tidal creeks or rivers. Historically, few of these islands have been built upon or altered, and most have been protected by their remoteness and inaccessibility. In recent years, however, a trend toward greater potential for development of these islands has stimulated questions and concerns about the ecological significance of these islands. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources conducted a field study of a number of non-barrier islands. Their report, An Ecological Characterization of Coastal Hammock Islands, December, 2004, has shown that these islands are unique ecosystems with diverse flora and fauna. That study recommends protection and buffering of important habitats and resources associated with these islands." (DHEC Regulation 30-12(N)(1)(a)

Back in 2005, the committee’s recommendations were approved by the DHEC Board with minor changes and placed on public notice for comments. The new rule set minimum sizes for islands that can have bridges, and maximum lengths for bridges. The rule also set performance standards for islands with bridges, including limits on docks and housing density. Freshwater wetlands must be avoided and protected by buffers, and stormwater management was tightened. Limits on lighting, buffer and open space requirements were introduced, as well as limits on impervious surfaces, and protection for existing vegetation. Septic tanks must meet more stringent standards than normal. Variances are allowed only where there is clear and convincing evidence of an overriding public interest. Conservation easements can lock in the buffers and other natural resource protections.

This is a great example of what responsible leadership and effective environmental regulatory system looks like. South Carolina's coast, like its many other natural treasures, deserves no less.