Hilton Head, S.C. — Children and adults ride bikes slowly along curving paths that border plush golf courses, tennis courts, and elegant homes on this resort island. Miles of wide, white sand beaches offer a chance for a quiet walk alone.
But it is getting harder to find an empty stretch of beach. And the view along the beach is increasingly of homes and apartments and hotels. There is even a rush hour here each workday as commuters from off-island jobs return home , and vice versa.
For years no one worried too much about the crowds. But today, as on many of the nation's barrier islands - fragile nature spots with shifting shorelines - there is growing concern that the crowds are getting too big.
Like a necklace of gems, barrier islands stretch from Maine to Texas. And development is increasing rapidly, as more Americans head for one of the gems to retire or vacation.
But changes are in the wind.
* A new federal law that goes into effect in October 1983 effectively ends federally subsidized insurance for new homes and businesses on barrier islands. Already this is having an effect, says Sharon Newsome of the National Wildlife Federation.
Developers are racing ahead on projects to beat the deadline. But banks are growing more hesitant to make loans on projects that will not be finished before the deadline.
* Congress is moving closer to approval of a law ending a wide range of federal subsidies for development of barrier islands, including money for bridges, roads, and sewers. The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would likely add another brake to development of barrier islands.
* Officials on islands such as St. Simons, off the coast of Gerogia, and Hilton Head have begun to impose controls on the kind of development they will allow.
''People have come here for the island's beauty,'' says a Hilton Head community leader, Martha Baumberger. ''I've felt increasingly appalled that lots of other people want to come, too.''
So in early July, for the first time ever, the county council that governs the area including the island, passed a temporary building control ordinance for Hilton Head.
St. Simons Island passed a tighter building control ordinance last year.
An undeveloped Georgia barrier island, Ossabaw, was sold in 1979 to the state for perpetual use as an education and research center. It can not be developed, says the former owner, Eleanor T. West, who says she sold it ''at a bargain price'' after turning down much more attractive offers from potential developers. But the private Ossabaw Foundation, which she runs to allow educators, writers, artists, and others to use the island for their projects, is nearly bankrupt and may have to be ended, she says, unless she finds additional support soon.
The new building controls on Hilton Head were prompted by concerns that less-than-attractive development might spoil some of the island's charm and too much development might overtax its sewage and water facilities. Some island wells already have had intrusion of salt water, but county officials see no shortage problems for 10 to 20 years. As demand grows, facilities to treat water will have to grow, they say. Already some of the 18 golf courses on the island are being watered with treated sewage water, which helps address two problems at once.
Officials also are concerned that in case of a hurricane, evacuation over the single, two-lane bridge would be a problem even if development stops now.
But opposition from some developers and county residents opposed to land-use controls may dilute some provisions of the final development controls, says county administrator Mike O'Neill.
Under the temporary controls, building height is limited to six stories. Special impact statements from developers are required for new construction with more than four living units per acre for homes and for more than 15 for apartments, says county council member Gordon Craighead, an island realtor. And to combat pollution of local waters, new construction property must retain the first inch of rainfall. Runoff from yards, parking lots, and driveways currently rushes oil, grease, and fertilizers into nearby waters, posing threats to wildlife.
Hilton Head's resident population is about 12,000, but up to 50,000 tourists are on the island in peak months, says Mr. Craighead.
To a large extent, Hilton Head has become an island for the affluent, says council member Morris Campbell. There is only one low-cost motel ($23 a night) on the island.
Most hotel rooms cost between $55 and $125. A time sharing condominium - each with a number of owners who individually use the facility for one week a year - may sell for several thousand dollars up to about $18,000, says Craighead. Some apartments rent for $300 to $350 a week for up to six people, and villas cost $ 800 and up a week.