News+Opinion » Will Moredock

Isle of Palms Sandbag Controversy

Greed, Stupidity, and Storms: S.C.'s beaches have too many enemies

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If the recent story in the Post and Courier about environmental destruction being committed to save the beachfront Wild Dunes condominiums didn't get your blood boiling, you must be a very rich bastard.

The story, which ran on June 3, paints an ugly picture of environmental agencies run amok in their effort to protect the region's fragile coastal ecosystem. The result is the horrible mess shown in the aerial photo accompanying the story: a section of beach on the north end of Isle of Palms, piled high with 50-pound bags of sand in a makeshift seawall to protect the posh condos from the tides and storms of the Atlantic Ocean. Worse than the 50-pound bags are the remnants of five-pound bags which were put there originally. Now the shredded plastic fiber bags are washing up on beaches and into tidal creeks and marshes for miles up and down the coast.

How was this environmental nightmare allowed to happen? As Bo Petersen writes in his P&C story, it's hard to fix the blame. At least four state and federal agencies have tripped over themselves in trying to set regulations on the use of sandbags at Wild Dunes.

But before you ask who was responsible for creating this sandbag mess on Isle of Palms, you should first ask: why in the world were those condos ever built in the first place? It's a question that might be asked of hundreds of sites along the thousands of miles of the nation's coasts.

The Atlantic Ocean has surrounded Isle of Palms for a long time. The storm season, which began on June 1, has been repeating itself since time immemorial. Under normal circumstances, anyone who built a condo development worth tens of millions of dollars so close to the waves — to say nothing of the people who bought the condo units — might be judged mentally unfit to manage their own affairs. But the developer and the buyers of Wild Dunes have an ace in the hole. They — and millions of property owners like them — are covered by National Flood Insurance. In other words, their folly is underwritten by the American taxpayer. If their property is lost due to storm or tidal flooding, they will be paid for their loss and free to do it all over again.

National Flood Insurance has fueled the insane coastal development that has transformed the American shore over the past 35 years. And that development has fueled such environmentally destructive measures as revetments and sandbags, as communities and homeowners seek to protect their beachfront structures from the forces of nature.

As recently as 2005, Congress sought to remedy this madness with the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which would eliminate federal subsidies for flood insurance, transportation, utilities, and erosion control to support any new development on barrier islands officially designated as "undeveloped."

The person most responsible for developing and advocating this legislation is Rob Young, associate professor of geosciences at Western Carolina University.

"Continued federal disaster aid for rebuilding vulnerable coastal areas has cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in the last two years," Young told the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans. "Irresponsible development of vulnerable coastal areas is becoming a burden on an already overburdened federal budget, as well as an environmental disaster."

Young has called for the creation of a Shoreline Retreat Advisory Commission patterned after the federal Base Realignment and Closing Commission that determines which military bases will close and which remain open. The SRAC would be composed of scientists and coastal managers, who would identify vulnerable shorelines that would be removed from future federal assistance.

"I believe it is time to cut our ties with the most vulnerable of our nation's coastal areas," he said. Young cited several of the most popular resort locations on the Southeastern shore, including North Topsail Island, N.C.; Santa Rosa Island, Fla.; and Dauphin Island, Ala. (He might just as easily have cited the barrier islands of South Carolina, including Isle of Palms.) "These are all stretches of shoreline that are so unquestionably vulnerable to storm impact that they should never again receive federal tax dollars to rebuild buildings or infrastructure."

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act will probably never come up for a vote in the House or Senate because it flies in the face of too many powerful interests. And just to prove that human nature is eternal and that developers and homeowners have learned nothing from the disaster at Wild Dunes, a developer announced less than a month ago that he intends to build 220 luxury homes on 200 marshfront acres near the Isle of Palms Connector.

"It is intended to be a very high-end, single-family home development," said Jeff Coggin, president of the SIM Group.

And, my fellow Americans, we are going to underwrite it.

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