Mitigating Sea Level Rise on Hilton Head Island Requires New Identity – 2/27/16

Recently, the Island Packet reported that the Hilton Head Island Town Council is evaluating the community’s interest in “creating a new vision for the town.” Apparently, the Town Council feels that the participation by residents in this process might prove difficult due to “retirees in gated communities, which are like separate towns and their residents often don’t feel engaged with or mistrust local government, owners of rental properties who don’t live on the island, and younger residents in the ungated parts of town who are often the least vocal.” Of course, the Town Council should be concerned about the challenge of overcoming these factional divides to create a new identity. But, the Town Council should be even more concerned about how these factional divides are already undermining how the local community tackles complex issues that require long-term solutions. For example, consider the threat posed by sea level rise. Certainly, sea level rise poses a long-term threat to the safety and security of the local community. Unfortunately, many of the permanent residents on the island will not be around to see the long-term consequences of sea level rise on the local community. This should be a serious concern for the Town Council. Without young families with a personal investment in the long-term future of the island, sea level rise may not receive the attention that it deserves until it is too late.

Local Demographics

Local demographics confirm that Hilton Head Island is deeply factionalized. Let us consider a few statistics. First, the median age of the population has increased annually from 29.6 in 1975 to 50.9 in 2010 according to the 2012-2017 Sustainable Practices Action Plan. This stands in stark comparison with the median age of 37.9 across the state in 2010. Second, the residents of the island are geographically divided. In fact, according to some estimates, Hilton Head Island is comprised of 70% gated communities. Third, a little more than half of the island’s housing units are classified as vacant (rental properties, seasonal, second-home or for sale). In fact, the 2010 census states that of the 33,306 units, 16,535 are occupied housing units while 16,771 are vacant housing units. Fourth, many of the permanent residents do not have children. According to some reports, only 3,039 of the 16,535 households have children under 18 years. Of course, we could go on. But, the point is made. Hilton Head Island is factionalized along at least three important lines (i.e., age; residency; children) that impact the ability of the local community to tackle sea level rise and other complex issues that require long-term solutions.

Sea Level Rise

Regardless of where one stands on the politicized topic of climate change, sea level rise is an objective threat to the coastal region of South Carolina. And, Hilton Head Island is not alone in being unprepared for the growing threat. Overall, South Carolina recently received a D rating for “its below average level of preparedness in the face of an average overall coastal flooding threat.” This is because many coastal communities across South Carolina have taken little action to plan or adapt to future coastal flooding. But, there are exceptions. For example, the most populated city and economic hub of the Lowcountry, the City of Charleston, has recognized that sea level rise is a direct threat. And, they have released a strategic plan to counter this growing challenge. Hilton Head Island needs to be a leader on this issue as well.

One of the environmental strategies outlined in the Sustainable Practices Action Plan is to “reduce and mitigate negative impacts of sea level rise and global warming effects through beach re-nourishment and development regulations.” Unfortunately, both these measures do little to reduce or mitigate the long-term consequences of sea level rise. Beach re-nourishment projects are temporary solutions at the cost of millions of dollars every few years. At some point, these efforts might even prove cost prohibitive for the local community. But, that is not a personal concern for many of the permanent residents of the island. They will not be here when that day arrives. It is only a personal concern for the young families in our community. They will be the ones that will have to bear that burden.

Lack of Identity Undermines Action

While there has never been a better time to address that sea level rise is threat, Hilton Head Island is simply not in position to meet the challenge of sea level rise. And, the lack of a ‘sense of community’ will continue to hinder any future efforts to counter sea level rise. From my perspective, the local community therefore needs to shift the demographics. Hilton Head Island needs more young families who are personally invested in the same long-term aspirations and goals for their local community. Communities with a strong sense of identity are better placed to meet challenges of sea level rise. This is because they face a shared future. Research seems to support this. One study found that communities with a high resiliency to climate change have achieved it through a ‘bottoms-up’ approach where citizens feel that climate change directly impacts their homes or neighborhoods.

Now, it is well-known that Hilton Head Island is a popular retirement destination. But, a poll released by Pew Research Center on American’s views on climate change exposes that this also undermines any efforts to mitigate the long-term threat posed by sea level rise. When US adults were asked about their views on climate change, 60% of 18-29 year-olds replied that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity compared to only 48% of 50-64 years and 31% of 65+ years. This poll demonstrates the serious generational divide on climate change. While younger generations feel that climate change will directly impact their lives, older generations do not share the same feelings.

Moreover, the number of vacation rentals and second homes paints a picture that a large number of homeowners have their roots planted elsewhere. While these homeowners may share the same concerns about sea level rise as permanent residents, they are not similarly invested in the long-term future of the community. The same goes for family households without children under the age of eighteen. These households are not similarly invested in the long-term future of the community as those with children under the age of eighteen. And, it will be difficult to change these dynamics. With a large percentage of gated communities combined with a median age above 50, Hilton Head Island simply is not in a good place to attract young families who want to become permanent residents.

Local Consequences

While the Town Council’s efforts to push for a new identity should be considered a step in the right direction, simply saying that the local community needs a new identity is not enough. We need to completely revamp the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 so that its focus is on the long-term future of our community. That means that we need to attract young families as permanent residents. And, that in turn means that we need to get serious about tackling complex issues that require long-term solutions. Sea-level rise is just one of these issues. Others might include discrimination and income inequity. Right now. the community is not positioned to tackle these issues. And so, the community cannot attract young families. That needs to change. And, it needs to change quickly. If not, the local community will suffer in the long-term.

Author: James Carroll is a local resident of Charleston, South Carolina. He is also a graduate of the College of Charleston and a former Peace Corps volunteer.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors and not their respective organizations. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Lee Coursey via Flickr CC

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