Carolinas Work to Make Coastal Protection Plans' Recommendations Reality

The Carolinas are starting the new year with expanded blueprints for protecting their coastal environments and the billions of dollars in revenue from fisheries and tourism that come along with it.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The Carolinas are starting the new year with expanded blueprints for protecting their coastal environments and the billions of dollars in revenue from fisheries and tourism that come along with it.

In December, North Carolina adopted its 636-page Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, which provides the state's three coastal rule-making agencies with science-based recommendations to help reduce the effects of coastal development. South Carolina's Council on Coastal Futures issued a similar set of recommendations in the summer.

Each state's plan includes ways to reduce stormwater runoff and sewage discharge into the ocean and establish more sanctuaries for oyster reefs along the coast, which help to purify water.

Although environmental leaders say the long list of recommendations are a good start, it likely will be years before any of the necessary rules are put in place to make the plans a reality, say officials who worked on the documents in both states.

Even under ideal circumstances, amending environmental laws can be a lengthy process that can take up to two years from the time a General Assembly begins its session to when a new law takes effect.


Environmentalists say lobbying by developers likely will delay the process even further.

Developers say it's a matter of making sure new rules don't drive up the costs and make developments too expensive.

"It's a little bit of taking of one's land if it becomes economically unfeasible to develop," said Lawrence Langdale, president of the Horry-Georgetown Home Builders Association. "We're never going to be opposed to try to develop better ways to do things and more sound physical ways to do things, but we always feel like it's important to weigh the balance of improving how we're doing something currently with the ability to provide shelter for the average individual." The Coastal Boom

Until the recommended changes are implemented, the effect of growth on the environment is only expected to increase as more residents move to the coast and development follows them.

Between 1990 and 2000, Horry County grew by 36 percent and Georgetown County grew by 20 percent, according to U.S. census figures.

Brunswick County, N.C.'s population experienced even more growth, expanding by 43 percent in that same time. It's expected to grow another 25 percent from 2000 to 2010.

That rapid growth brought more than 84,000 new residents to Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick counties, creating the need for additional neighborhoods, roads and other developments that reduce wildlife habitat and contribute to the proliferation of stormwater runoff and other environmental changes.

Stormwater runoff is considered the biggest threat to the coastal environment. It occurs when rainwater drains into creeks, streams and estuaries and carries with it pollutants such as oil and bacteria. The more paved surface there is, the more stormwater runoff there is.

One recommendation in both states' plans involves reducing the percentage of impervious, built-upon surfaces.

Impervious surfaces are those that rain can't pass through, such as a building or a paved parking lot. Reducing the amount of impervious surfaces on a lot would often mean reducing the size of a home.

Tom Maeser, president of the Fortune Academy of Real Estate, said it's in developers' self-interest to reduce runoff, anyway.

"There's nothing worse for a builder or developer to create a development and have it end up, because of a development up the road, not be able to handle their runoff," he said. "If they don't, they end up in lawsuits."

Getting legislators in South Carolina to make significant changes to state law that would address stormwater runoff isn't going to be easy, said Jimmy Chandler, an environmental lawyer in Georgetown who was a member of the Council on Coastal Futures.

"The biggest drawback to any sort of environmental protection is the S.C. General Assembly. The legislature now, the mood is anti-regulation. There's just not a favorable political climate in either the House of Representatives or state Senate for any sort of new regulations. That's the danger," Chandler said.

Similar opposition from developers and some local governments lobbying lawmakers in Raleigh, N.C., is expected, too.

"This was the easy part, getting this [plan] through. The hard part is getting some of those rules passed, trying to designate critical habitat, how to impact impervious surfaces, runoff and development and all that. That's where the real difficult times are going to go," said Jimmy Johnson, chairman of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission.

But the passage of the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan is still reason to celebrate, he said. "Nobody else has attempted to do anything on this scale that North Carolina is trying to do with this Coastal Habitat Protection Plan. The significance of it is huge," Johnson said.

One way to gauge the health of a coastal environment is by the amount of oysters harvested. A single oyster purifies about a gallon and a half of water an hour and provides habitat for numerous other species.

The oyster population in the Carolinas is starting to grow but only after nearly a century of decline and concerted restoration efforts in both states. Collecting shellfish in Horry County is banned because the area's waters are polluted. Many areas in Brunswick County, including Calabash Creek and Lockwood Folly, are off-limits also.

"Some of those waters are some of the best shellfish waters in the southeastern part of state. That's a shame," Johnson said. "I hope we're not too late."

North Carolina's plan, which is considered the first of its kind in the country to align its three environmental rule-making bodies with a single, plan to protect all ecosystems, identifies several different kinds of habitats, the threats they face and the steps necessary to stop the problem. But, it stops short of changing laws.

"The problem, of course, is that at this stage, it's just a plan. But it's a very ambitious plan. It has the right recommendations," said Doug Rader, senior scientist with the N.C. Office of Environmental Defense.

Rader helped craft the Fisheries Reform Act in 1997, which mandated the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan.

He said North Carolina's plan likely will be a national model and one the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will look to when it develops a similar plan this year.

South Carolina's Council on Coastal Futures report also stopped short of mandating changes in law, and some say, focused too heavily on administrative changes rather than threats to the environment.

"[North Carolina] was more of a science-based procedure than what we engaged in Coastal Futures. We didn't have much scientific analysis to inform our discussion. It was more policy and politically oriented," said Dana Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and a member of the Council on Coastal Futures. "Because [North Carolina] started with a base of science, it was a better initiative than ours was."

Although North Carolina's plan doesn't outline specific changes in policy, the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, Division of Marine Fisheries and the Environmental Management Commission are required to make any new laws or regulations consistent with the plan, Rader said.

"In that sense, the rubber will hit the road the first time a new rule or existing rule is modified that relates to one of those areas," he said.

South Carolina doesn't have a similar provision, although it has many of the same goals and obstacles to changing its laws that North Carolina does.

Among the shared set of goals is a reduction in the number of docks in coastal waters because they destroy habitat, produce additional shade that denies plant life with needed sunlight and encourage boat use which can carry destructive bacteria that harms shellfish beds.

Developers aren't thrilled with that idea or many of the other recommendations that would directly affect them and their customers.

"I think we need to probably take a close look at those [recommendations] and just see what the actual impact would be in terms of development, reducing impervious surfaces and how much more does it make something less developable? How much more does it raise the cost of home ownership for an individual," Langdale said. "Everyone's got to have a place to live is what it comes down to."

Environmentalists in both states say that could be an impediment to getting laws changed.

"It will always be the case that developers with a real estate interest have a powerful say in the making of policy," Beach said. "[South Carolina's coastal program] has been very bureaucratic and, therefore, not able to counter and balance the power of developers."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News