Location: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Highlighted Element: 422.e. Coastal Erosion Open Space (CEOS)

Point of Contact: Allison Hardin, CFM, Planner, City of Myrtle Beach, SC

Myrtle Beach is a picturesque city located on the South Carolina coast. The city is central to a 60-mile uninterrupted stretch of beach that begins in Little River, SC and ends in Georgetown, SC ("Grand Strand," n.d.). The city is home to a permanent population of approximately 27,000 ("Myrtle Beach, South Carolina," n.d.). Built atop a large manmade island, Myrtle Beach is separated from the mainland of the United States by the Intracoastal Waterway ("Myrtle Beach, South Carolina," n.d.). It’s also a popular tourist hub due to its long beaches, boardwalk, pleasant weather and other attractions that draw an estimated 17 million tourists annually ("Myrtle Beach, South Carolina," n.d.). As a result, its economy is highly dependent on the tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on the quality of the city's beaches and the ocean.

People enjoy the beach in Myrtle Beach. Image courtesy of James Willamor via Flickr Creative Commons.

As Allison Hardin, a planner for Myrtle Beach, aptly put it, "The beach is our thing!" But being a coastal city also makes the area vulnerable to flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as catastrophic erosion. The severity of this vulnerability became apparent after Hurricane Hugo, which bore down on Myrtle Beach and much of the rest of the coast of the Carolinas (Armstrong, 2014). Hugo is thought to be the worst natural disaster that has occurred in the living memory of most people residing in this area of the United States (Armstrong, 2014). In Myrtle Beach, beachfront homes and hotels were severely damaged, sand dunes intended to protect inland areas from storm surge were washed away, and many of the city's famed piers were destroyed (Armstrong, 2014).

In the wake of that storm, South Carolina established a model beach front management plan, which Myrtle Beach was tasked with implementing. These plans impacted city codes by requiring cities to establish a baseline where new construction and erosion control structures could not be built, as well as a 40-year setback line based on average annual erosion rates landward where private properties can build (City of Myrtle Beach, 2012). This policy essentially ensures that new construction is given a higher degree of protection from coastal storm impacts, and beaches as well as other sensitive ecological areas like dunes are protected from development (City of Myrtle Beach, 2012). Myrtle Beach went above the state requirement and regulated a setback equal to 50 years of erosion. Now the city's shoreline remains largely intact and preserved as open space (City of Myrtle Beach, 2012).

Withers Swash flows through Family Kingdom Amusement Park. Image courtesy of Mike Burton via Flickr Creative Commons.

But the community's beaches are not the only natural areas the city has taken action to protect. Myrtle Beach is home to several tidal creeks known locally as swashes ("Withers Swash Park," n.d.). Withers Swash is a large area where salty waters from the ocean and stormwater mix. Several small inland tributaries meander through Myrtle Beaches' residential neighborhoods, which contribute flow to the swash. At their confluence, a small lake just north of Kings Highway formed. The lake and surrounding natural area comprise Withers Swash Park which then drains into another open naturalized channel that flows under Kings Highway and a popular amusement park before draining into the ocean.

The city has not always owned the swash. In the last 20 years, Myrtle Beach has acquired the swash piece by piece, and presently all but two parcels that include the swash banks are city owned. But the extent of the city’s improvements didn’t stop there. More recently Myrtle Beach constructed a 1,500-foot boardwalk that overlooks the swash and provides beach access to pedestrians walking from Kings Highway to Ocean Boulevard. The city plans to expand so that it eventually connects to Withers Swash Park (Wren, 1993). The park also includes a nature trail with informational signage designed, installed and paid for as an Eagle Scout project. In 2016, the city broke ground on a new park called "New Town Park," located on one of the tributaries that contributes to Withers Swash Lake ("New Town Park Project Could Enhance Withers Swash Area," 2015). The ultimate goal of the city is to create a linear park that stretches from New Town Park along the entire length of Withers Swash until it reaches the beach ("New Town Park Project Could Enhance Withers Swash Area," 2015).

Did you know? Ten states have state-mandated coastal setbacks that may qualify for credit under the CRS program (NOAA, 2012). Find out if your community is eligible for credit by checking out the Green Guide profile of element 422.e. Coastal Erosion Open Space.

Withers Swash is more than just a critical recreational resource. It also helps manage stormwater by naturally cleaning runoff from the city's impervious surfaces before draining into the ocean. The attention Myrtle Beach has paid to Withers Swash has also helped the city address homelessness within the city. After discovering an encampment of homeless people living along one of the tributaries that feeds the Swash, the city created a new initiative called New Directions that focuses on housing homeless individuals and also employs individuals from the New Directions shelter to maintain Withers Swash Park. Through these efforts, the city has not only allowed this unique natural area to be preserved for residents, but also helped to improve water quality so fish and wildlife can thrive and prevent swimming advisories that negatively impact tourism. It also improved the quality of life of homeless individuals within the city.

These successes, which have helped to protect the natural and beneficial functions of floodplains would not have been realized without the help of others. Myrtle Beach's former Planning Director Jack Walker and former Stormwater Manager Steve Moore championed the city's efforts to acquire and protect beachfront areas and Wither Swash with regulations so that future generations can enjoy them. External to the city, the Coastal Waccamaw Stormwater Education Consortium and the Grand Strand Surfrider Association were involved throughout the comprehensive planning process and advocated for the protection of the swash as well as the beach. The city also received $85,500 from a State Parks, Recreation and Tourism Grant to construct the previously mentioned boardwalk, which the city matched. Myrtle Beach also spent an additional $650,000 to purchase lands adjacent to Withers Swash. An additional $275,000 in funding from a Community Development Block Grant was obtained by the city in order to construct Withers Swash New Town Park.

Best practices that can be shared by this community:

  1. "Set aside land early on. A lot of the [CRS open space] points we have are because we had really good founding fathers that did just that. The challenge for those that haven't had that kind of benefit is to regain it, and it's tough. It's easier to loosen up than it is to tighten up." – Allison Hardin
  2. The CRS program is an easy win for elected officials on campaign trails. Ensure they are aware of the CRS program and its benefits to policyholders, and using this information to their advantage. Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes is fond of repeating the fact that the CRS program helps keep almost $1 million in the city that would have been going to insurance companies.

As a result of these actions and the implementation of other activities the city receives CRS credit for, Myrtle Beach has reached a Class 5 and saves its flood insurance policyholders $915,000 each year. Their efforts have also helped to make the city more resilient to future flooding.