Beach Resorts Benefit from Private Protection

Published September 1, 1999

All along the barrier islands off South Carolina’s coast, private property owners are setting an example of how to protect beaches and other environmental resources without federal or state assistance.

The trend, which began on Hilton Head Island in the 1960s and has since spread to Seabrook, Kiawah, Dewees, Dataw, Daufuskie, and DeBordieu islands, is yet another example of how private ownership of natural resources improves their chances for survival and growth.

“They are not doing this because of governmental regulation, but in order to maximize the value of their investments,” write James R. Rinehart and Jeffrey J. Pompe, coauthors of “Preserving Beaches” in the June issue of PERC Report. Rinehart and Pompe are professors of economics at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina.

“The experience of coastal barrier islands shows the close link between private property rights and protection of the environment,” they write.

On Hilton Head, for example, residents paid to have additional sand brought in, widening the beach to 472 feet from 322 feet. The move increased the value of oceanfront houses by an average of $22,718. Such beach “nourishment” is done periodically because the coastline is constantly shifting. A more elaborate remedy has been the relocation of Captain Sam’s Inlet twice since 1983, again at residents’ expense.

This brand of environmentalism, Rinehart and Pompe note, sharply contrasts with that practiced by the federal and state governments, whose “coastal management” policies often do more harm than good.

“One of the stated purposes of the South Carolina Coastal Council, which regulates coastal activity, is to ensure ‘public access,'” they write. “This means encouraging the construction of bridges, parks, ramps, docks, piers, and ferries–the kind of development that leads to the abuse of the ecosystem.” Indeed, they added, until 1982 the federal government aggressively encouraged development on the barrier islands.

Much of the credit for the private protection of the barrier islands is given to Charles Fraser, who developed Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head. The island had been heavily logged in 1950, and a bridge from the mainland was built, bringing increasing numbers of people to the island.

“Until the 1960s, developers gave little thought to the value of open space, harmony with nature, or the stabilization value of sand dunes and vegetation,” note Rinehart and Pompe. “They sometimes built close to the sea, used seawalls, revetments, and bulkheads. They clearcut tree stands and filled in marshes.”

But rising prosperity and concern for the environment in the 1960s led developers to abandon their “lot by lot” approach and instead emphasize total community development.

“Fraser convinced his father, who had bought timber rights on Hilton Head, that the island’s value would be increased by leaving the trees in place,” notes Rinehart. “He started this whole trend.”

Included in Fraser’s plan was the use of natural building materials that mirrored the surroundings, and construction of streets that wound through protected trees and natural vegetation. Developers on the other islands took similar steps to minimize their impact on the environment. On Dewees Island, north of Charleston, for example, no motor vehicle traffic is permitted. There are no asphalt roads. Fertilizer and pesticide use are restricted.

Making Their Investments Pay

The driving force behind environment-sensitive private development and restoration is cost-benefit analysis.

At Seabrook, improvements are paid for by annual beach taxes and special assessments. Each one must be approved by residents at the ballot box . . . and not all beach improvements are welcomed with open arms.

In 1996, the island’s residents rejected a proposal from the Property Owners Association that would have placed 300,000 cubic yards of sand around nearby Renkin Point. The project would have cost each property owner only $375, but it failed. The majority of Seabrook property owners had not been convinced the project was worth the expense.

Such local control is not to be found in federal government restoration efforts, where, write the authors, “you have people in Montana paying for beach restoration in other parts of the country.”

For more information …

see the June 1999 issue of PERC Reports at, or Pompe and Rinehart’s “Establishing Fees for Beach Protection: Paying for a Public Good,” Coastal Management, Vol. 27, Issue 1, at