South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Flood-prone development continues as state gets grip on water issues
January 18th, 2019

By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent

A Charleston Democrat plans to file a bill in the next two weeks that conservationists say could be one of the best ways for the state to deal with nagging flooding issues.

The proposed bill would prevent future development in flood-prone areas, such as a 100-year flood plain.

“It will be filed,” S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard told Statehouse Report. He added the bill would be filed before the end of the month.

S.C. Environmental Law Project Executive Director Amy Armstrong called the proposal an “easy and seemingly obvious way to prevent future harm from flooding, and keep people and structures safe.”

The bill, still in its draft form, is similar to policy that the city of Charleston is already considering, according to city Chief Resilience Officer Mark Wilbert.

“We do not want to build in flood-prone areas at all. That just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “(But) there are a lot of questions of what that looks like. It’s a lot more complicated than what it appears on the surface … You can’t just wave a magic wand and tell everybody you can’t build here anymore. You have to do your homework.”

Wilbert said any policy must consider property owner rights in addition to the environmental or taxpayer cost.

Murrells Inlet Republican Sen. Stephen Goldfinch has filed another bill this year to help flood-prone property owners leave.

“People just shouldn’t be living in the hundred-year flood plain,” Goldfinch said, adding his bill has gained bipartisan support as the state deals with the triple threat of rising sea level, eroding coastlines and extreme precipitation leading to inland flooding.

“From a conservative right position, we continue to (federally) fund people whose homes have been flooded over and over and over again,” he said. “The taxpayers have literally repaired (some homes) five times and, at some point and time, you have to throw up your hands and say it’s not fiscally responsible and it’s almost morally reprehensible.”

Development continues Meanwhile, development in the floodplain continues in South Carolina. One project that continues to be challenging is for development of Captain Sams Spit, a 175-acre barrier island outside of Charleston.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued permits in 2015 for creating a wall to stabilize a road leading to the barrier island, and water and sewer lines for a 50-home development there. The development has been in a legal tangle for at least a decade.

Armstrong, on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League, is challenging those permits. Late last year, an administrative judge stayed the permits while S.C. Environmental Law Project appeals them.

“Our barrier islands are the most vulnerable areas on the coast to storm damage, to flood damage,” Armstrong said. “They are the most susceptible to being overwashed when there are large weather events … (then) who’s left holding the bag to cleanup when those houses are destroyed and fall into the ocean? … It’s putting people and structures in harm’s way.”

Attempts to contact public relations at the developer, Kiawah Partners, were unsuccessful.

Nearby, the city of Charleston was fingered in 2018 for allowing more floodplain development than any other coastal city in the state.

A more statewide view While Charleston appears poised to shift policy as it takes the lead on many flooding issues in the state, some of its public servants have been tapped for the gubernatorial South Carolina Floodwater Commission.

Late last year, Charleston officials visited the Netherlands, a European country known for being below sea-level and its dykes used to keep its land dry.

“Water there is managed on a regional level,” Wilbert said of the big takeaway from the trip. “The governor’s commission is certainly a step in the right direction to look at this statewide.”

Commission Chairman Tom Mullikin of Camden said the commission is part of the state’s effort to take a holistic strategy to flooding. The commission will have a meeting Feb. 8 at Charlestown Landing State Park in Charleston. In December, the commission identified 10 task forces in its first-ever meeting.

“We are no longer treating extreme weather in South Carolina as an anomaly,” Mullikin said.

With the commission being so new, Mullikin said he cannot speak on any legislation currently, but he added that legislation will be one part of the commission’s future recommendations.

The 2019 session Conservationists have lauded Goldfinch’s bill that will help homeowners take federal buyouts of their flood-prone property through establishment of a state fund.

“I was standing in knee deep sewage in someone’s house during the last major flood and I started talking to them and they told me what their problem was: They had been flooded twice before this and they wanted to go but they couldn’t get out,” the senator told Statehouse Report.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers loans to help homeowners leave flood-prone properties, but it requires a 25 percent match. Goldfinch’s bill would use federal money through a state program to offer a low-interest loan for that match. But the current bill would require local governments to make the application on behalf of a swath of homeowners.

“We are literally reclaiming wetlands where homes used to be,” Goldfinch said of the proposed revolving fund.

On Wednesday, a Senate subcommittee sent Goldfinch’s S. 259 to full Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Chairman Paul Campbell confirmed the bill will be heard next week, but the meeting has not been posted online as of deadline for this publication.

Wilbert said another bill that can help ebb floodwaters in the state is one that allows a local sales tax to be used for floodwater mitigation. S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, introduced S. 217, which was given a positive report from the Senate Finance Committee this week. That puts the measure on the Senate calendar for a floor vote.

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