Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Carolina coast | High-rise heaven?

Condo towers won’t get tougher rules despite perils, costsBy SAMMY FRETWELL -

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH — State regulators Tuesday decided against toughening rules that allow high-rise condominiums on one of the most flood-prone beaches in South Carolina.

The decision at Cherry Grove — where condominium towers dominate a 20-block area once reserved for beach cottages — solidifies a state policy of letting less-restrictive oceanfront building codes stand even after taxpayers pay to renourish beaches.

The government has spent more than $100 million in the past two decades to widen South Carolina’s eroding seashore, the foundation of the state’s tourism economy. It spent some $20 million replenishing the shore at North Myrtle Beach in the 1990s and is preparing another multimillion dollar renourishment project this July. The $30 million project also includes other Grand Strand beaches.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s proposal for North Myrtle Beach is the first in a series of building regulation reviews during the next two years that will look at most South Carolina beaches to determine whether building restrictions should be changed.

Since the state first eased building restrictions in the heart of Cherry Grove eight years ago, two high-rise condominium projects containing thousands of rooms have been launched along the oceanfront.

A third, smaller condominium building also was built as a result of the state-approved changes at Cherry Grove. Before the rules changed in 2000, people wanting to develop from 20th to 40th avenues north were largely restricted to construction of new beach houses.

Bill Eiser, a DHEC oceanographer, said his agency saw no reason to reverse a decision it made eight years ago to loosen oceanfront construction regulations after the 1990s renourishment. State law allows building rules to be tightened if beaches erode, but to be eased if the seashore builds up, whether through natural or artificial renourishment.

Even though waves cover the dry-sand beach in many areas of Cherry Grove at high tide, Eiser said North Myrtle Beach hasn’t suffered major erosion since the 2000 decision. Erosion there is less than one foot per year, a low rate when compared to rates of 8 to 15 feet at some beaches in Beaufort County, he said.

“Our survey data shows not much less sand than when we last did this,” Eiser said. He added that the state could have eased building restrictions further on other parts of the beach where the shore is stable, but chose not to.

While the state’s policy is cause for rejoicing among developers and seaside landowners at North Myrtle Beach, some scientists and beachgoers said DHEC’s decision reflects an ominous trend in the face of more intense hurricanes and rising sea levels. Renourished beaches eventually will wash away, leaving buildings vulnerable, critics say.

Dave Huster, a Michigan truck driver vacationing in Cherry Grove, said South Carolinians should worry about footing the bill in the event of a storm.

“Who is going to pay to fix that building when the ocean goes over the berm?” Huster asked. “Who knows where the ocean will go?”

Tim Hall and Paul Conrads, federal officials who serve on a state shoreline advisory panel, are among those who question the wisdom of DHEC’s policy at Cherry Grove and other beaches.
Later this year, the state-appointed committee is to recommend changes in South Carolina’s beach management act, which many say is not working as intended. The law, adopted first in 1988, calls for a gradual “retreat” from the seashore of new development.

“It’s hard to look at barrier islands that need to be renourished and think this is a wise policy,” said Conrads, a U.S. Geological Survey official in Columbia. “It doesn’t seem like the prudent thing to do.”

That’s of particular concern in North Myrtle Beach, which has led the state’s coastal cities in the number of repeat flood insurance losses under the federally backed program. The city’s Cherry Grove section — an easily flooded narrow sand spit between a marsh and the Atlantic Ocean — typically takes the worst pounding during storms.

Paul Blust, zoning administrator for North Myrtle Beach, said some seaside landowners were concerned that DHEC might tighten the rules on oceanfront building. After viewing a series of maps at DHEC’s office in Myrtle Beach, Blust said many property owners will be relieved. If the economy improves, Blust expects more high-rise condo towers in Cherry Grove.
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t,” he said.

At issue are building restrictions known as “setback lines.” These are imaginary lines that prevent development close to the beach. In 2000, DHEC moved setback lines 25 to 100 feet seaward along a 20-block stretch of oceanfront in Cherry Grove.

DHEC released a series of satellite maps Tuesday showing the lines’ location. Most stayed where they were set in 2000, although the agency did move them seaward in a few spots. One place is near a 20-story condo tower under construction south of Sea Mountain Highway. Developers of the project, Towers on the Grove, have said they’re simply going by state rules.

The building boom started after 2000 with a 17-story Prince Resort condo tower at the Cherry Grove Pier, where setback lines were moved seaward about 50 feet. The lines were extended seaward about another 25 feet in 2006 so the project could have swimming pools along the oceanfront.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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