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Off the Beach

ON clear and sunny days an ocean view - close enough to hear the sand fleas chatter - is just the ticket. At least that's been the feeling behind 20 years of US beachfront development - against the better judgment of environmentalists and scientists worried about bad erosion and a high public cost. But the fury wreaked by hurricane Hugo on the upper coast of South Carolina provides the most sobering reminder possible of the need to exercise greater wisdom - both by those developing land, and those buying it.

South Carolina wised up last year with its Beachfront Management Act - a subject of controversy following Hugo. The new law prohibits building or restoration in a ``dead zone'' 20 feet back from the high tide line. Building is restricted in a ``setback'' zone behind that. The law was designed to curtail heavy erosion between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

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Hugo's 104-mile-an-hour winds wiped out the dead zone in 50 minutes. The result is a classic public interest versus private rights issue:

Can the state tell you not to rebuild on your own land? Conversely, if you do choose to build or buy, do taxpayers have to pay for your decision if a Hugo-like disaster occurs?

So far, South Carolina has stuck to its guns. Officials claim fair warning was given, and they plan to conform all post-Hugo building and repairs to the new act. As it turns out, the actual number of properties that can't rebuild is about 40. The state can designate the size and place of new structures in the setback, meaning that a number of former 10-bedroom homes may have to come down to two or three. It also compensates for land now unlawful to build on.

These measures seem drastic, but they are designed to make up for the excesses of unchecked development. They are a future safeguard. Compassion, however, is certainly due those given a powerful sales pitch by local communities or real estate agents - and told not to worry about untoward events. (Insurance covers loss of house, but not land.)

Other states - California, Texas - are being equally tough on beach development. Massachusetts, after the costly blizzard of '78, ruled that in the future, there will be no guarantee of new public works - roads, sewers, utilities - for houses that topple in zones known to be dangerous.

Its not always clear and sunny out. The public shouldn't have to subsidize a hankering for view property - for houses built on sand, instead of rock.

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