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Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: Horry County, South Carolina

Excerpts from the underlying study prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency by Matheny-Burns, the staff of Industrial Economics, and Jim Titus


Located in the northeastern corner of the state, Horry County is the largest of the state's 46 counties in total land area, covering nearly 1,134 square miles-larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. The county has 35 miles of beachfront, collectively known as the Grand Strand, which is separated from the rest of the county by the Intracoastal Waterway.

Horry is South Carolina's second fastest growing county, with a current population of more than 196,600 residents. County growth rates have consistently outpaced state averages by more than double. During the height of its tourist season, however, an additional 500,000 visit the county, with the majority of both residents and tourists concentrated in the eastern half of the county near the coastline. With a population density of more than 173 persons per square mile, the county is one of only nine Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) in the state.

Of the county's eight municipalities, five are located on the coastline. The largest incorporated municipality in the county is the City of Myrtle Beach, which has a permanent population that exceeds 22,750 residents and 10 miles of beachfront. The City of North Myrtle Beach is the second largest municipality with a population of slightly under 11,000. Other incorporated beach communities include the historically black Town of Atlantic Beach with 351 residents, the Town of Briarcliffe Acres with a population of 470, and the City of Garden City with more than 9,350 residents. Known as the "River City," the inland City of Conway has a population of 11,788 and serves as the county seat. The Conway area experienced severe flooding problems following Hurricanes Floyd and Fran. Flood mitigation and property acquisition efforts have centered around Conway in areas adjacent to the Waccamaw River.

Most of the population, commercial, and residential growth in previous decades was concentrated along the coastal communities of Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach Briarcliffe Acres, Atlantic Beach ,and Surfside Beach. As these areas approach build-out, however, and as beach property costs escalate, many developers and residents seeking more affordable housing options have focused on areas along and west of the Intracoastal waterway. Future development is anticipated to concentrate in the eastern half of the county between Conway and the beaches. Most of the western part of the county will remain primarily rural, dominated by agricultural and forestry uses.

Development in more rural areas of the county not currently served by water and sewer systems will be limited by the flat topography and erodible soils that characterize a large portion of the county. Eighty-eight percent of county soils have severe septic tank limitations, making the provision and extension of sewer service a key tool to shape and direct future growth within the unincorporated parts of the county. Twenty-four percent of the county land area is within the 100-year tidal and nontidal floodplains and 0.4 percent of lands lie within the 100-year coastal high hazard area floodplain.

Likelihood of Shore Protection

Outside of various nature preserves, the entire coastal zone is expected to be developed. Beach nourishment occurs regularly, and the public has access to these beaches. Thus, shore protection is the general rule and shore protection is almost certain for most of the county. As a result, our study focused on identifying the relatively few areas that might not be protected.

Planners view Waites Island as the only place where is the only portion of the ocean coast where protection is not certain. A portion of the island is owned and operated by Coastal Carolina University as a barrier island research site subject to a conservation easement that would probably would preclude beach nourishment. The rest of the island to the east is still undeveloped; but development is expected. This island, however, is covered by the Coastal Barrier Resources Act and hence would be ineligible for beach nourishment and other subsidies. Therefore, protection is less likely than for other parts of the Grand Strand, and the county suggested that this area be designated as shore protection lightly.

The lightly developed area along the Waccamaw River between the Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve and the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve is not certain to be protected. SC-105 would be protected, and thus the County suggested that we show that road and those lots immediately along it as protection almost certain, but that the other land here is likely to be protected.

The county has numerous other preserves. The Lewis Ocean Bay Preserve and the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve should show up as light green. Preserves also can be found south of Conway. Moreover, there is a general movement to purchase lands south of Conway, albeit not all the way up to Conway. Preserves are also being created along the border with Georgetown County. Development trends are so great that the only reason to have any blue on the map at all is the uncertainty about the boundary of future preserves: Just as red depicts areas that will probably-but not definitely-be developed, the primary function of blue in this county is to depict areas that probably-but not definitely-will become part of a preserve.

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Governments Plan for Development of Most Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea (PDF, 7 pp., 1.3 MB, was originally published in Environmental Research Letters , Issue 3, Volume 4 (2009).

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