Regulators choose not to tighten rules on high-rises near flood-prone beach

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH -- Despite the threat of hurricanes and rising costs to taxpayers, 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 1 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. Eiser 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.