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Pawleys Island: Town may need bureaucracy to shore up beachfront

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island residents voted to incorporate more than 30 years ago in hopes of keeping the island from changing.

The island has maintained its character even as the beach houses grew larger and the summer visitors multiplied, but the Town Council’s simple approach to problem-solving appears to be coming to an end.

Council members met this week to discuss the job it will ask a committee of residents to tackle: saving the Pawleys Island beach.

Council Member Rocky Holliday, who will chair the committee, said volunteers will be asked to learn about a process that is “long, arduous and complicated.” He proposed a series of meetings for committee members to review the history of the town’s beach going back to the establishment of the groins in the 1950s and to educate themselves about permitting, funding and repair before making a recommendation to council.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an ad hoc committee formed and given a more important task,” said Town Administrator Ryan Fabbri.

The town had been forced to take emergency action to scrape sand into dunes along its beach after erosion in October caused by the passage of Hurricane Joaquin offshore and a nor’easter that followed. Mayor Bill Otis said the island lost 101,000 cubic yards of sand during the storms, with houses south of Hazard Street mostly meeting the federal standard of “emergency conditions.”

The town is pursuing some short-term solutions, hoping to keep a $9 million beach renourishment project with the Corps of Engineers alive and get $3 million from the state next year to add sand. The beach committee will be looking long-term: 20 years into the future. Town Council Member Mike Adams asked if 40 years might be better, considering how slowly the permitting and beach repair process moves.

Otis said he and Fabbri spent months dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, trying to get assistance using the studies and work done between 1999 and 2014 to prove Pawleys had an engineered beach. “It was all wasted,” Otis said, “except we learned a lot. We know exactly what won’t count.”

The town will need a more bureaucratic approach to win favor with the federal government, beginning with the definition of its “ideal beach.” Otis defined that is having dry sand in front of the dunes at a normal high tide. Erosion of that “ideal beach profile” would be monitored yearly and when it reaches a certain point of damage it can be built back. “Without a profile,” he said, “you are not considered to have an engineered beach and not considered for FEMA funding in case of disaster.”

Establishing the ideal profile would be a good starting place for the beach committee, Holliday said. Its goal would be to build a beach to that standard. “If the beach goes away,” he said, “rental demand goes away and accommodations taxes go away. It translates straight into property values.”

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