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South Carolina island at center of ecology/development tussle

When this slender barrier island just off the South Carolina coast, near Charleston, first opened its beach to the public in 1918, goats were brought in to eat some of the jungle-like growth.

Today, most of the beach front is lined with homes. But some of those homes are in danger of washing away -- as much of the beach already has.

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At the south tip of Folly Island, a developer has just obtained a local permit for a 540-unit condominium and convention-center complex to be built only about 100 feet from the edge of the usual high tide, and next to an ecologically fragile marsh.

Both the eroding sands and the planned beach-front construction have thrust this small island and its only town, Folly Beach, into the center of a growing national debate over protection vs. development of barrier islands.

Conservationists and an increasing number of government officials are trying to slow development of barrier islands, whose shorelines shift with the erosion or buildup of sand. They contend it costs the US taxpayer too much to protect and -- in some cases after severe storms -- rebuild the property of barrier island residents.

Residents of Folly Island, which has been hit by several major storms in this century, including hurricane David last fall, are seeking a new million-dollar beach to replace their badly eroded one. Where there was formerly a wide beach, the pilings of some homes now are being splashed by high tides. The town wants the federal government to pay the entire bill for the new beach.

The Town of Folly Beach is neither big nor rich.

Year-round population of the one- stoplight community is only about 1,500. But up to 30,000 visitors flock here on summer weekends, mostly from the Charleston area. Some 40 percent of the residents live on incomes below the federal poverty lines, according to one researcher.

This narrow tax base makes the planned condominium/convention center attractive. Increased taxes from the project would provide greater town services to island residents, Mayor Regas Kennedy says. Construction also would involve the first large sewer line to the island, which the town could buy into, he adds.

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"It's a good project," Mayor Kennedy contends.

But both the new beach and the proposed development have their disadvantages -- and critics.

A new beach must be "renourished" with more sand pumped in every five years at a cost of $800,000 each time, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. It would be cheaper, Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey says, to let natural erosion occur, even if that means letting some beach-front homes "fall in" the sea.

Mayor Kennedy flatly rejects Dr. Pilkey's proposal as politically unacceptable. Even relocation of beach- front homes would be "politically impractical," says an official of the corps, which has recommended the new beach.

Most national coastal experts and local residents attending a recent conference here about Folly Beach's sand erosion problems agree that a new beach is desirable. But various experts stress that keeping other undeveloped barrier islands free of beach-front construction would avoid the need for costly anti-erosion projects at the expense of the nation's taxpayers.

As for the proposed beach-front complex here, marine scientist John J. Manzi calls it a "bad precedent" for coastal development in South Carolina, one of the most recent states to pass a coastal zone management act.

He is concerned about harm the project may cause to an adjacent salt marsh by blocking salt water that would normally wash over the project area into the marsh. And, he contends, increased fresh-water runoff into the marsh from the new paved areas will further hurt the marsh, a major source of food for many fish and birds.

If a future storm causes serious damage to the planned buildings, federal flood insurance would likely pay a substantial part of the repair or reconstruction expenses -- with at least some cost to federal taxpayers.


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