Sea level rise could put thousands of Beaufort County homes at risk, study says

Hilton Head Island Packet
June 20, 2018

By T. Michael Boddie And Alex Kincaid

Thousands of Beaufort County property owners may want to tread lightly.

A continued rise in sea level is expected to put coastal properties at risk of chronic flooding, not just by the end of the century, but in the next 30 years.

According to a study released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists, by 2045, Hilton Head could have more than 2,700 homes at risk of becoming chronically flooded by high tides. That translates into about 9 percent of the community’s homes.

For all but one future scenario, Hilton Head will have more homes at risk than any other South Carolina community, according to the study’s data.

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Northern Beaufort County’s St Helena Island could have more than 1,000 homes at risk of chronic flooding. That represents 8 percent of the community’s homes, the study said.

Beaufort, Port Royal and Bluffton will also be at a high risk for flooding over the same time period, according to the data.

This future scenario assumes a sea level rise of about 6.6 feet globally.

The study uses three scenarios for sea level rise developed for the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

The intermediate scenario assumes a 4-foot sea level rise.

The low scenario assumes a sea rise level of 1.6 feet. It assumes curtailed warming, and is in line with regulations set in the Paris Agreement.

The risks

For the UCS study, residential and commercial properties at risk of “chronic inundation” from sea level rise were identified using data from Zillow, an online real estate company. Chronic inundation is defined as at least 26 floods per year.

“As sea levels rise, persistent high-tide flooding of homes, yards, roads and business districts will begin to render properties effectively unlivable, and neighborhoods — even whole communities — financially unattractive and potentially unviable,” the study says.

The problem will affect 13,000 miles of coastline, including thousands of North and South Carolina homes.

The consequences would be substantial.

Individual homeowners may find their homes become “undesirable” on real estate markets.

The cost of flood insurance may increase, or may become unavailable, the study said. Foreclosed and abandoned homes could follow.

Increased flooding could also put a strain on Lowcountry real estate markets, the UCS study says.

The homes at risk by 2045 on Hilton Head are currently worth $1.48 billion today. More than 3,000 people live in those homes. Those residents contribute more than $13 million to the local property tax base, the study says.

On St. Helena, the homes at risk by 2045 have a current value of $368 million. The more than 1,800 people who live in them contribute $2.8 million to the local property tax base.

A shrinking property tax base could prevent municipalities from funding certain services or could force them to raise taxes to make up for budget shortfalls, the study said.

Because its further inland, Bluffton’s risk is not as great, Heather Colin, the town’s growth management department director, said.

“Most of the properties in the town of Bluffton have the advantage of being protected by the bluff,” she said, noting the town will consider the UCS study and similar ones when updating land development regulations.

While more low-lying areas may have residential properties with a Bluffton address, those properties may actually be in an unincorporated part of Beaufort County. Data for the town may be more difficult to record.

Homeowners won’t be the only ones affected.

“When a home in a beach town is at risk of chronic flooding, not only is the homeowner affected, but so is a larger network of people, from the vacationer who rents it for a week every summer to the year-round residents who benefit from the revenues generated by tourism,” the study said. “If a significant number of homes in the area are regularly flooded, the popularity of the town as a vacation destination could decline.”

Even if homes and commercial properties escape flooding, roads and other surrounding land and infrastructure may be affected , the study said.

Frank Knapp, who in 2014 formed the Beaufort/Port Royal Sea Level Rise Task Force, said historic downtown Beaufort is a critical area.

“With just a three-foot rise in sea level this high-value historic and tourism area would be inundated causing great harm to the Beaufort economy,” the task force said in a report that included proposed solutions. “This area is the access point for rising seas to inundate other significant parts of Beaufort and cut off a vital access road (Carteret Street) leading to the downtown business district.”

A call and text to Scott Liggett, Hilton Head’s director of public projects and facilities and chief engineer, seeking comment on the island’s efforts, were not returned.

What can be done?

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling noticed the rising sea level through a window of his home.

He lives on a street named Rising Tide Drive.

“We have to change some of the ways we think about things,” Keyserling said Wednesday.

People may debate the subject of climate change — the underlying cause for the rise in sea level, according to the UCS study, he said. But he simply goes by what he sees.

“This is not the time to talk about the ‘why,'” he said. “This is the time to talk about the ‘what.'”

According to the study, a crucial first step in addressing sea level rise is simply knowing the risks.

That can be done by using science-based data, “aligning existing policy and market incentives with the realities of sea level rise,” and by making changes that limit flood risk, the study concluded.

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