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Protecting Beaches

  • James Rinehart

    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
    the nation.”

    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
    usually short-lived.

    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
    to 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,
    July, 3Ð17.
    Pompe, Jeffrey, and James Rinehart. 1999. Establishing
    Fees for Beach Protection: Paying for a Public
    Good. Coastal Management 27: 57Ð67.

    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).

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