South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

S.C. lawmakers struggle to stop seaward push
March 19th, 2015

BY SARITA CHOUREY

COLUMBIA — Pressure from Kiawah Island developers have complicated a Bluffton lawmaker’s effort to protect Beaufort County and the entire South Carolina coastline from the hazards of construction too close to the ocean.

Rep. Bill Herberksman’s bill, H. 3378, contains the recommendations of a two-year effort by a Blue Ribbon panel.

Members represented real estate, science, municipalities, state government and the Legislature, and gathered testimony from experts and state residents. Numerous compromises on a host of policies between the disparate groups yielded the panel's recommendations.

On Wednesday, the developers wanted lawmakers to compromise further.

Herbkersman’s bill sought to prevent the construction restriction line — the baseline — from ever moving seaward again. However, a subcommittee changed it to allow a redraw to occur in 2021. Current law puts the process on an eight-to-10-year cycle.

Amy Armstrong, an environmental lawyer and executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, warned against the effects.

“What will end up happening, is if this window is given to allow the baseline to be redrawn, there is going to be probably multiple people, aside from just the Kiawah folks, that are going to want push down the baseline and move more seaward,” she said Wednesday. Herbkesman’s bill says the line would still be regularly reevaluated, but it could not move in the direction of the ocean.

On Thursday, the full committee postponed a vote on the bill in order to work on a new compromise.

The developer community for Kiawah Island, located south of Charleston, urged lawmakers not to permanently fix the line that marks the point from which nothing may be build seaward. Last December they suffered a Supreme Court defeat that affected a residential project at Captain Sam's Spit. Those speaking against Herbkersman's bill Wednesday included Trehnholm Walker, Mark Permar, Patrick Melton and Will Culp.

“We are people who have made investments in this state based on the laws that existed,” said Melton, CEO of Kiawah Partners.

“It was very clear to us that in 2017 or 2019 that line would be reevaluated and it would be moved forward.”

He said that if a storm struck Kiawah, property owners would be responsible along with any monies set aside for reserves.

He also said the area is building up additional sand.

“I’ve had a homeowner come up to me and complain that when they bought their home they only had to walk 400 feef to the beach and today they have to walk 800 feet,” said Melton.

But Armstrong and others said the resulting construction creates risks for all taxpayers, while reducing public safety and beach access, and worsening erosion.

Herbkersman emphasized that a strong storm on South Carolina’s coastline is inevitable and could be particularly costly to all, if the state does nothing.

“For every dime of detriment, every dime of destruction, it’s going to cost the taxpayers of South Carolina one way or the other,” said the Bluffton Republican, who is also a developer.

“If we have $150 million worth of destruction, anybody in this committee, in this room, would have to be insane to think it’s not going to raise everybody’s rates … not only rates, it’s going to be a rating issue and South Carolina is already on the low end of the rating.”

Kiawah Island property owner Paula Feldman testified that “well-heeled homeowners who have more money than sense” will want beach renourishment funds after a catastrophic storm.

“Who will be forced to pay for the cleanup?” she said. “You and me and other taxpayers will be on the hook.”

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said Thursday that he shared the conservation community’s dismay at the amendment that would extend a reevaluation to 2021. But he also thinks projects, such as Kiawah, should be able to move forward.

“I was trying to find language that would be a compromise for the Kiawah developers … that would satisfy their concerns while at the same time keeping the baseline where it’s currently at for the majority of the coastline,” said Ott.

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