The Incredible Shrinking Coastal Agency
BY BRETT BURSEY
South Carolina's most valuable natural resource is its coast. While the rest of the state has its bragging points, the coast is unique, making up 25 percent of the undeveloped shoreline on the entire east coast.
Ironically, its beauty contributes to its greatest threat: development.
The Lowcountry and the Grand Strand face population booms that are stretching the local infrastructure to the breaking point. Beaufort County's population may double in the next 10 years, driven in part by huge retirement communities.
Now the coast faces a new threat. The state agency in charge of protecting South Carolina's coast has watched its power steadily erode.
In 1977, the state legislature created the South Carolina Coastal Council to "develop and implement a comprehensive coastal management program and a permitting system for the critical areas in the eight coastal counties of South Carolina."
Over the next two decades, the Coastal Council did a mostly admirable job of stewardship. Complaints about its decisions came mostly from developers who wanted to build closer to the ocean, put more docks in the marsh and more condominiums on filled wetlands.
The Coastal Council earned a reputation for "getting the big picture," said Nancy Vinson, who works for the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit environmental group. "They had coastal scientists committed to making plans for entire ecosystems, not just permitting one development at a time."
In 1988, the Council successfully pushed the Beachfront Management Act through the legislature. The act adopted the policy of "retreat" from the ocean, banned new seawalls and earned the council the undying enmity of coastal developers.
In 1992, the Coastal Council was voted the best coastal regulator in the country by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
During the restructuring effort in 1993, the Coastal Council was renamed the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) and became a division of the DHEC.
The 14-member council, with eight members appointed by the coastal counties and six by the legislature, was retained to serve as an appeal board.
Wayne Beam, a Chester native with a Ph.D. in environ-mental sciences, had directed the Coastal Council since its beginning, and was appointed to serve as a deputy commissioner of DHEC, overseeing the OCRM.
The major difference after restructuring was that the coastal regulatory buck stopped not with Beam but with DHEC Commissioner Doug Bryant.
The outcome of the recent fight over sandbag seawalls concerns environmentalists, who see it as confirmation of their fears that DHEC will ignore staff recommendations.
Beachfront home owners on the Isle of Palms wanted to build seawalls using 600-gallon sand bags, each weighing 2.5 tons. OCRM ruled that the giant bags were "new hard erosion control devices," which were banned by the Beachfront Management Act. It instead approved the use of five-gallon bags.
DHEC Commissioner Bryant intervened in the matter and allowed the property owners to use 50-gallon sand bags.
"The difference between a five-gallon bag and a 50-gallon bag isn't the real problem," said Jimmy Chandler, an environmental lawyer in Georgetown. "The real issue is that the Coastal Council stood behind their staff decisions, and DHEC has a history of overturning or tinkering with staff decisions."
On Aug. 28, DHEC announced that OCRM would no longer have deputy status within the agency and Beam would no longer serve as deputy commissioner. OCRM is now a bureau within the Office of Environmental Quality Control (EQC), and Beam now answers to Lewis Shaw, deputy commissioner of EQC.
A DHEC press release said the "exact placement (of OCRM) within EQC was delayed until input from the affected parties was received."
In an interview the day before the announcement, Beam said that he had not been contacted by either Commissioner Bryant nor Shaw. "They haven't asked my opinion," he said. "I'm concerned that the vitality and vision demonstrated over the years [by the Coastal Council staff] may not be as evident because of being placed deeper in a bureaucracy."
Beam is proud of OCRM's work. "We have gone out and written legislation," he said. "When we talk about being independent, I'm talking about going up against the Highway Department and the Department of Commerce. The forces that control DHEC won't do that."
Shaw defended the move as a necessary step in DHEC's effort to make the regulatory process more efficient. "We expect this move to improve the state's ability to protect the environment and enhance coastal zone management," he said.
Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story.
"Dr. Beam has the top coastal program in the nation and the brightest staff of any state agency," Vinson said. "How presumptuous of them to think that they can improve on OCRM's work."
Mac Bennet, a Coastal Council member from Columbia, said, "It's a mockery when you take OCRM, which was rated the Number One coastal regulator in the country, and reduce it from an agency to a division and now to a bureau.
"This is bad for our state, our environment and those concerned about our coast. There is more at play here than government efficiency. We were winning the race and they pulled us into the pits and changed the car and driver."
Jimmy Leitner, a Coastal Council member from Rock Hill, said, "We had the only state agency that encouraged direct public input. We allowed people to come eyeball to eyeball with the decision makers. That door is closed."
Sen. Glenn McConnell (R-Chas.) warned Bryant on Aug. 19 that it was clearly the legislature's intent that after restructuring, "OCRM would be at the same level as EQC."
"Although you say it is a transfer," McConnell wrote, "in my opinion it smacks more of a dissolution of a division and putting of the agency within other departments."
McConnell quoted the restructuring law to Bryant, noting that the Coastal Council was singled out for treatment in the statute.
"The law clearly requires DHEC to have a coastal division. It is my opinion that [OCRM] cannot be dissolved as a division and transferred without legislative approval," McConnell told Bryant 10 days before he moved the coastal division.
"As clear as the statute is and as bold as they were in doing this, I'm going to be in their business come January," McConnell said. "This is not going to go away."
Chandler has had more than his share of fights with both the Coastal Council and DHEC. "The difference," Chandler said, "is that Lewis Shaw has apologized for even requiring permits." Beam's people, on the other hand, "have the attitude that protecting the coast is worthwhile, and they are proud to do it."
At a South Carolina Bar gathering two years ago, Chandler and Shaw appeared on an environmental regulations panel. "Shaw reflected the attitude of DHEC," Chandler said. "He conceded that the laws were a pain in the neck but that DHEC would try to make them as painless as possible."
Beam worries that the work of the past 20 years will be lost. "The commissioner has a lot on his plate," Beam said, "I hope that he can give the necessary attention to our coast."
"It's a mockery when you take OCRM, which was rated Number One coastal regulator in the country, and reduce it from an agency to a division, and now to a bureau. This is bad for our state, our environment and those concerned about our coast. There is more at play here than government efficiency."