Erosion from Tropical Storm Irma further damaged this beachfront house on Harbor Island. It was demolished in April 2018, and now, the Harbor Island Owners’ Association is suing the state to demolish or move five more houses on active beach. Provided / Don Woelke.

These South Carolina houses are falling into the ocean as beaches erode. Who should remove them?

Almost a year on, a legal fight to set the road map for how South Carolina deals with imperiled beach houses has stalled. The challenges that have popped up in the case beg the question of whether the state can really be compelled to deal with vulnerable oceanfront properties as sea levels rise and storms intensify.

At the same time, recent trends in state policy have moved South Carolina’s position from one of “retreat” — gradually encouraging homeowners to move away from the shore — to one of preservation, or doing everything possible to keep homes in place.

The legal case concerns five homes on Harbor Island, a gated retirement and vacation community at the eastern edge of Beaufort County. As parts of the island’s beach have eroded, the houses are now routinely underwashed by the ocean and have largely been left derelict, with pieces of the structures falling into the sea.

The Harbor Island Owners Association is arguing that the people who own the homes should remove them. Two other homes on the beachfront have already been demolished and two have been relocated, said Don Woelke, the manager of the association.

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