Monday, August 30, 2010

Coastline retreat vital to economy

Bluffton Today

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced a report commissioned by the state that had to do with the future of coastal South Carolina. The report was a reprise of an earlier manifesto that was a grand master plan to retreat from the ocean’s edge.

In the intervening decades, the “retreat” policy is in shambles — a result of court rulings, development patterns that depend on subsidized flood insurance, and regulatory factors that avoided political battles. The recent report is a testament to the fact that ignoring problems does not make them go away.

Most of my time last week was spent in Myrtle Beach in consultation with members of the Coastal Caucus and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

We wrestled with many of the issues that are going to need solution in the very near term. Some of these matters have to do with where the setback lines need to be drawn, and by extension, what are the reasonable, rational and enforceable criteria for drawing those lines. A number of our neighbors from Fripp Island all the way to South Beach in Sea Pines have more than a passing interest in what eventually is decided.

The other major topic of consideration was tourism, particularly coastal tourism. Most observers think that we received a bump in visitor numbers from the distress in the Gulf. The stats are not in yet but the educated speculation seems to indicate we benefited to a measurable degree from the oilrig disaster. How do we protect ourselves from environmental degradation that would place us next year, or the year after, in the position of our friends along the northern Gulf of Mexico?

In Beaufort County, we are also facing the very real possibility that the Heritage golf tournament could disappear, along with tens of millions of dollars in potential business activity, millions of dollars in state and local revenues, and even millions of dollars in charitable contributions.

In my view, the loss of a flagship tourism generator like the Heritage is certainly not a tragedy of the magnitude of the Gulf oil spill, but the economic consequences for our area could be very similar.

Throughout my business life, one of the guiding axioms of success has been this: Don’t let the struggle to attract new customers interfere with good service to your current patrons. Tourism is the economic lifeblood of the South Carolina economy. We cannot let that escape our constant attention. No matter how hard I try to attract new businesses to our state, I always know that what supports the bulk of our families is tourism. It just so happens that “clean and green” also makes us more attractive to a large spectrum of companies looking to relocate.

In this time of retrenchment when there are some folks who want to redefine the core functions of state government to maintaining “minimally adequate” education and passable roads, I believe we need to take a longer view. My conversations this last week were heartening in the sense that most of the members understand that we are in a temporary fiscal bind, but the key is to plan for a sound recovery by cutting judiciously, with an eye toward increased efficiency and productivity.

We may ultimately have some success at having development retreat from the ocean, especially in recognition of the massive cost associated with sustaining the unsustainable. We cannot, in my view, retreat from our responsibility to protect and preserve those natural features that support both our economy and quality of life.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Coastal management issues pose dilemma

Bluffton Today

Many thanks to all who called in about last week’s column on the shellfish harvesting reclassification of the headwaters of our May River. Your concerns mirror my own on this extremely important issue. I was more than a little dumbfounded by the fact that this paper, as well as its competitor, did not deem the reclassification newsworthy as of this writing (Friday evening.) Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the fact that August is often vacation time and all the reporters were out of town. Ideally, the weekend editions will see this oversight corrected.

The local job situation was front and center at the recent Lowcountry Regional Jobs Summit, held at the University of South Carolina Hilton Head Gateway Campus. My friend Paula Harper Bethea moderated this excellent event. The first day was pretty much a definition of the problem, while the second involved a batch of potential ways we can build and diversify our economy. Many thanks to Paula for a great effort, and to the Coalition for Jobs for putting this event together.

One of the things driving the extraordinary number of calls to my office has to do with a recently released study commissioned by the state that looked at the future of coastal South Carolina. There are some issues articulated in the study that, as always, have to do with the delicate balance between the needs of coastal management and property rights. There are thorny issues all the way from Fripp Island to South Beach on Hilton Head Island, such as setbacks from the critical line and what are the proper criteria for drawing the critical line. There are also matters relating to inland waters, such as the May and Okatie Rivers that will need to be hashed out.

These are matters of great interest to me, as well as the Coastal Caucus, and will be the subject of hearings and workshops in the fall. For decades, the state has mandated a building retreat from the edge of the ocean. This is in recognition of the fact that barrier islands are part of a dynamic process that moves the beach in response to forces beyond our control. Twenty years ago the issue was often expressed as response to littoral currents and sand migration. Today, there are issues of rising sea levels and possible impacts of climate change. We cannot afford to armor the entire coastline to counter these forces. Neither can we simply ignore those that have legally built in areas that are not sustainable without some sort of renourishment or armoring to protect their homes and investments. How to work through these dilemmas will be one of the profound challenges of our generation. For the present time, please continue to call in, email, or write your thoughts on how these issues need to be approached. I can do a better job of representing all of us if I have a good feel for the spectrum of opinion on these difficult issues.

Finally, I want to congratulate Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton for his election to a leadership post on the South Carolina Association of Counties Board of Directors. Weston is one of the hardest working elected officials I know, and the list of his accomplishments is long and distinguished. It is time he and they are recognized.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Closed oyster beds a wake-up call

Bluffton Today

This morning as you sip your coffee and read your favorite paper, there are meetings in progress that have to do with the health of our precious May River.

My friends Larry and Tina Toomer, owners and operators of the Bluffton Oyster Company, are meeting with environmental sanitation staff from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The 950-plus acres of headwaters of the May River are being closed to oyster harvesting for the 2010-11 season because of unacceptable fecal coliform levels. This area was classified as conditional last year, but increasing pollution has made that classification unsupportable going forward.

Later today, DHEC staffers will also meet with Kim Jones and other town of Bluffton officials, as well as Dan Ahern of the Beaufort County Stormwater Utility.

The explanation that I have been given for this reclassification has to do with “cumulative impacts” that make the headwaters fecal coliform readings too high even when there is not a rain event that might stir up the pollution from the bottom.

While this is not good news, it must be said that the sampling will continue and there is a possibility that the three-year rolling average that necessitated this reclassification is reversible if we can get a grip on the cumulative impacts that are diminishing our river. I want to say unequivocally that Larry and Tina’s oysters from the Bluffton Oyster Company are still the best in the country.

They are harvested from waters well removed from the reclassified areas and will remain available and of excellent quality for the foreseeable future. My office will continue to serve as a catalyst for interaction and communication between the town, county and state jurisdictions.

This water quality issue is not a problem without a solution.

On the contrary, all the jurisdictions are modifying their particular regulatory regimes in light of newer science that strongly suggests that naturally occurring organisms such a fecals are controlled fairly effectively by the salinity of an estuarine system.

Unfortunately, as we build more roads and houses and shopping centers with more impervious surfaces, the water that should filter into the earth is running off into the creeks and rivers, making them less salty and less able to naturally clean themselves.

My personal understanding of this matter is the reason that my last project, the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton, retains all its stormwater on the property, stored underground in large perforated pipes until it seeps into the ground. I believe that eventually, we will have to take our regulation, especially in the Lowcountry, in that direction. In the meantime, let this reclassification serve as a wake-up call for our community.

We must reduce or mitigate impervious surfaces wherever possible.

The rain that flows off your roof or driveway does not just disappear without impact. It is one of those “cumulative impacts” mentioned above. Kim Jones, natural resources planner for the town of Bluffton, has gotten a grant to support conservation projects in our area.

One of those projects that we can all consider is installing rain barrels and rain gardens to infiltrate water back into the earth.

Go by and see Paige Camp’s compound on Calhoun Street. She has several rain barrels integrated into her landscaping. It’s beautiful. Our potter, Jacob Preston, is renovating his home and studio on Church Street with at least 1,200 gallons of rainwater storage capacity and a plan to flush the toilets in his house and studio from that supply as well as support raised-bed gardens.

You will hear more from me on this crucial issue as we get into the fall.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lawmakers assess financial reality

Bluffton Today

The state of South Carolina was fortunate to host the Southeast Legislative Conference in Charleston last week. We had a good showing of legislators from around the region trying to glean some new ideas on how to make dollars go further and make taxation more equitable and less onerous for both taxpayers and collectors.

Having been to a number of these events over the years, I was a little surprised at how much distress there is out there. I know we have had a couple of bad years in which we have essentially had to cut far beyond the fat in our budget. Apparently, some of our neighbors are in worse shape than we are. This is, of course, small comfort, as we look at some of our financial realities in the near term. I believe we are on the upswing economically, but there is a significant lag before that is reflected in ameaningful gain in revenue.

The conference was agreat time to network with our-of-state colleagues but also a good time to introduce presumptive Hilton Head legislator Andy Patrick to his potential new friends around the state. Andy is a quick study and I look forward to having him join our delegation. We have the personnel and the skill-sets to have the most effective delegation in the state. I’m really looking forward to getting back up to Columbia after the first of the year.

Tomorrow and Wednesday the Coalition for Jobs is hosting the Lowcountry Jobs Summit at the University of South Carolina- Hilton Head Gateway Campus. This summit is the beginning of a conversation on how the economy is impacting the residents of our area and how local governments can become more business friendly and encourage more job growth. This conversation will very likely have some similarities with weekly talks held between your state representative and Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart.

While we in Beaufort County have been spared much of the absolute worst of the recession, we have been profoundly diminished nonetheless. Unlike some parts of our state, Beaufort County has powerful economic development tools that need to be deployed with new commitment. One of those tools is the Lowcountry Economic Network, a group of forward-looking business and government leaders charged with bringing good jobs and clean industry to the Lowcountry area.

As these things sometimes work out, my friend Jerry Stewart was recently elected the chairman of the board of the Lowcountry Economic Network. Great expectations are appropriate.

Sen. Tom Davis and I had the pleasure of sharing the dais for the monthly meeting of the Greater Island Committee over on Hilton Head Island. There was a lot of material to cover as the next session will be important for many reasons, not the least of which will be a new governor and several new faces in the General Assembly. The presentations were well received and I got to see and chat with a lot of old friends. And the Greater Island Committee membership knows a little more about the working of the state than they did before the meeting.

In the office, we are maintaining a high level of constituent contacts —almost 400 last week. I’m trying to balance the higher levels of contact with staff vacations. Consequently, for the next couple of weeks, please be patient if you call and don’t get an immediate response. I have the best staff around and need to take care of them.

Monday, August 2, 2010

State’s business climate improving

Bluffton Today

The response to the last couple of columns has been tremendous. We are running something like 75 constituent contacts above the weekly average of 350-plus calls, letters or e-mails. Many of these calls included good ideas and productive suggestions from you on matters that make adifference to all of us.

This is in stark contrast to what I am hearing from many of my colleagues in the General Assembly, in that when many of them get feedback from constituents, it is mainly complaints. It makes a tremendous difference in my effectiveness that I have weekly input that is largely productive and adds to the body of ideas in play, and not simply negativity or expressions of frustration. For this, I thank you.

I am in e-mail contact with my pal, Jeff Fulghum, as he makes his way to Afghanistan for another deployment. We recently learned that a Bluffton homeboy, Garratt Boggs, has been wounded in Afghanistan and is currently recuperating at Walter Reed Army Hospital. Garratt grew up on Myrtle Island, graduating Hilton Head High in 1986, and USC Columbia in 1991. Our thoughts and prayers are with Specialist Boggs. We are again reminded that the cost of freedom is always high.

On June 23 of this year, Gov. Mark Sanford signed the Economic Development Competitiveness Act and the business climate in our state immediately became significantly better. The legislation provides, among other things, that a corporation establishing a national headquarters in our state, adding at least 50 new employees performing corporate headquarters related functions, will be exempt from state corporate income tax for 10 years. CareCore, in Bluffton, is an immediate beneficiary of this far-reaching program.

The legislation also revises provisions for fee in lieu of property tax agreements that have been on the wish list of the Lowcountry Economic Roundtable for some time. This one provision that will likely make the difference in several pending negotiations for local business relocations. There is also an incentive program for smaller businesses that want to expand in our area.

The legislation also expands incentives for “life science facilities” as well as companies that want to manufacture solar energy technology, wind turbines, advanced ion or other battery technology for alternative motor vehicles. This is done through the S.C. Renewable Energy Tax Incentive Program, a flexible and forward-looking entity that should go along way toward making our state a player in new, cutting edge industries.

The idea here is to pull in the high-tech industry, which is generally higher paying and more stable than much of our more traditional tourism and retirement-related job base. This is not to say we are moving away from hospitality and tourism as economic drivers, we simply need to diversify and deepen our economy. With proper incentives and management, the newer industries, being more environmentally sensitive, should serve to create local jobs as more companies move south to enjoy our good weather and great natural amenities.

What we are attempting to do with the Economic Development Competitiveness Act is to create an attractive business climate through tax incentives and thoughtful, enlightened regulation, that will build upon our educated workforce, transportation infrastructure, and great cultural and natural resources to encourage clean, forward looking businesses to take agood look at South Carolina.