In the late 1990s, with the economy roaring and coastal property at a premium, wealthy landowners at Folly Beach started building a row of houses on a stretch of seashore that had grown wider than a football field.
The new homes, which stuck farther out on the beach than any other seaside houses, gave landowners a shorter walk to the surf and a better view of the Atlantic Ocean.
But the seashore in front of their homes eroded years later. And last weekend, a hurricane that didn't even hit South Carolina sent waves crashing against those same houses.
Now, homeowners are relying on millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded renourishment projects to protect their homes from the encroaching sea.
Folly Beach city officials want Congress to grant special, short-term funding to buffer their six-mile long beach from the ocean, which includes the houses that extend farther out than any others. And they are preparing to seek up to $18 million next year for a longer-term renourishment project that also would buffer the newer row of houses.
Hurricane Irene's impact on Folly Beach exposes shortcomings in a 23-year-old state law that was intended to move development back from the beach, but in fact has allowed it to extend closer toward the seashore.
Since the mid-1990s, at least 14 homes at Folly have been built closer to the beach than the existing line of development, in some cases approaching 100 feet or more, according to Charleston County property records and aerial photographs examined by The State. Aerial photographs and property records show potentially about a dozen more lots that could be developed.
The building has occurred at Folly Beach's extreme northeastern end, where seaside homes are easily valued at $1 million apiece. Aerial photos show some of the homes jutting farther onto the strand than many other homes at Folly.
The construction occurred on private lots that had been under water, but began to re-emerge after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 as the beach built up, either from natural processes or from shoreline widening projects.
Elizabeth Hagood, spokeswoman for a state panel studying improvements to South Carolina's beach law, said Folly Beach's northeastern end is an example of how South Carolina has failed to push development back over time.
The 1988 beachfront management act encouraged a gradual "retreat" of new development from the beach to minimize risk.
"It is not prudent to permit new construction going forward that is that risky,'' said Hagood, a former state regulator. "It is inconsistent with the goals of the (1988) beachfront management act. It is fiscally irresponsible. And it is not in keeping with the best interests of all the citizens in terms of what our public beaches are.''
Folly's seaside construction reflects a statewide trend that emerged after the Legislature passed the comprehensive coastal management law in 1988.
By encouraging a gradual retreat of new development from the beach, the law was supposed to reduce taxpayer liability for private coastal development and maintain a dry sand beach for tourists.
But exemptions and loopholes in the law never allowed the retreat to happen, state regulators say. And in many cases, the law's shortcomings have encouraged development closer to the ocean.
State regulators say they've had to loosen development restrictions on more than 200 lots, from Hilton Head Island to North Myrtle Beach, because the law requires it. That has allowed construction of high-rise condos and big homes, closer to the beach, in flood-prone areas.
Geologist Rob Young, a member of the coastal study panel with Hagood, said the new houses built at Folly were bad investments for property owners. It was inevitable that the beach would erode and threaten their homes, he said.
"I would have expected this to happen,'' he said.
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