James R. Rinehart and Jeffrey J. Pompe
Along the coast of South
Carolina, private island
communities-Sea Pines on
Hilton Head Island and entire islands
such as Seabrook, Kiawah,
Dewees, Dataw, Daufuskie, and
DeBordieu-are protecting their
beaches and other environmental
resources. They are not doing this
because of government regulation
but in order to maximize the value
of their investments.
Extensive resort and residential
communities on coastal barrier
islands are a recent phenomenon.
Until the 1960s, developers
gave little thought to the value of
open space, harmony with nature,
or the stabilization value of sand
dunes and vegetation. They sometimes
built close to the sea, used
seawalls, revetments, and bulkheads.
They clearcut tree stands
and filled in marshes.
In the 1960s, however, rising
prosperity and growing interest in
the environment led many private
developers to see the islands in a
new light. The notion of total
community development replaced
traditional lot-by-lot development.
Hilton Head, for example, a large island off the
coast of South Carolina, was heavily logged in 1950.
However, after a bridge was built from the mainland,
bringing visitors and potential residents by car, owners
began to realize that the island had something much
more valuable than timber: the natural beauty of
beaches, trees, and water.
Charles Fraser, who developed Sea Pines resort on
Hilton Head, was a pioneer in preserving that beauty. He kept trees standing along the
coast. He used natural building
materials that blended in with the
surroundings, designed lots to
maximize their views, built
houses that were open to the outside,
and constructed streets that
wound through protected trees
and natural vegetation. Fraser set
aside some of the land as permanent
natural preserves. According
to Michael Danielson (1995,
34), “Sea Pines became a training
ground for developers, architects,
landscape designers, and others
who later took their lessons to resorts
and new communities across
Fraser was not alone. Developers
on Kiawah Island, Dewees
Island, and others took similar
steps to meet the needs of Americans
who appreciated preservation
as well as homesites. They located
housing farther away from the
ocean than required by state law.
They protected the shoreline ecosystem
by hiring geologists, biologists,
and engineers as consultants.
They constructed walkways over
dunes, limited entry-points onto the beach, protected wildlife and trees, and restricted the
use of chemicals on golf courses and roadways. Above all,
they protected their beaches.
Seabrook Island, about 23 miles south of Charleston,
South Carolina, is a case in point. It has severe, recurring
beach erosion problems caused primarily by natural
elements. Bordered by tidal inlets (the North Edisto
River, Kiawah River, and Bohicket Creek), Seabrook has
the kind of shoreline that shifts continually.
The 2,200-acre island, with three and a half miles
of private beach, is heavily wooded and crisscrossed with
marshes, lagoons, and tidal creeks. It has over 2,300
separate, privately-owned properties-495 single family
homes, 1,003 villas, and 852 undeveloped lots. Except
for a convenience store, a golf pro shop, and two restaurants,
commercial activity (including schools and
churches) is kept outside a security gate.
During the island’s early development, little was
known about shoreline dynamics. Beach protection was
piecemeal and left primarily to individual property owners.
Between 1975 and 1982, several “hard” engineering
projects involving barriers to erosion such as sandbag
revetments, groin, concrete sheetpile walls, and riprap
stones were undertaken. The cost was $3
million, paid for by individual property
As knowledge grew, efforts
switched from these “hard” engineering
techniques to “soft” engineering projects,
which involve replacing lost sand with
sand from inland sites or nearby ocean
locations. Beach nourishment projects
appear to provide significant benefits. A
study (using the hedonic technique) of a
nourishment project at Seabrook shows
that increasing beach width from 322 to
472 feet raised the value of oceanfront
houses by $22,718 and the value of houses one-half mile from the beach by $8,081 (Pompe
and Rinehart 1999). However, beach nourishment is
Seabrook residents hired a geologist to advise them
and in 1983, at a cost of $300,000, relocated Captain
Sam’s Inlet to the north. This was a success. It caused
sand to accrete on the island’s beaches (Kana 1989). In
1990, a beach nourishment project widened Seabrook’s
beach area, although storms in 1994 seriously eroded
portions of the beach once again. In the spring of 1996
Captain Sam’s Inlet was again relocated northward at a
cost of $500,000, since it had migrated back to its 1983
position. Similar projects will be necessary in the future,
a fact of which residents are aware. Inlet relocation is
planned at intervals of approximately 10 to 15 years,
with additional beach nourishment expected from time
Seabrook’s beach protection projects are paid for
with funds collected from annual beach taxes and special
assessments. Local property owners on Seabrook
must give their approval via the ballot. This means
that a beach protection project is not likely to be undertaken unless the expected benefits exceed the costs.
Property owners make a careful assessment of benefits
and costs and demonstrate considerable interest in
who pays and who benefits. Although Seabrook residents
have paid substantial sums for some projects, in
1996 a majority of property owners voted against a proposal
to place 300,000 cubic yards of sand around
Renkin Point. It would have cost each property owner
an additional $375. In spite of a lavish information campaign,
the Property Owners Association was unable to
convince a majority of property owners to cast a favorable
Not only do property owners have a vested interest
in protecting beaches, as communities they also engage
in cooperative agreements with other communities.
For instance, the decision to relocate Captain Sam’s Inlet
required an agreement between
Seabrook and Kiawah, a neighbor island
to the north.
The effectiveness of actions by
homeowners stands in sharp contrast to
the actions of government to control
erosion and otherwise protect the
beaches. Although a flurry of state and
federal laws have mandated “coastal
management,” until 1982 the federal
government actively encouraged development
of barrier islands. And one of the
stated purposes of the South Carolina
Coastal Council, which regulates coastal
activity, is to ensure “public access.” This means encouraging the construction of bridges, parks,
ramps, docks, piers, and ferries-the kind of development
that leads to the abuse of the ecosystem.
The experience of coastal barrier islands shows the
close link between private property rights and protection
of the environment.
Danielson, Michael N. 1995. Profits and Politics in
Paradise: The Development of Hilton Head Island.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Kana, Timothy. 1989. Erosion and Beach Restoration
at Seabrook, South Carolina. Shore and Beach,
Pompe, Jeffrey, and James Rinehart. 1999. Establishing
Fees for Beach Protection: Paying for a Public
Good. Coastal Management 27: 57Ã67.
James R. Rinehart and Jeffrey J. Pompe are professors of economics
at Francis Marion University, Florence, South Carolina. This
article is adapted from one published in the Journal of Private
Enterprise (Fall 1998).