SC Statehouse beach fight: Should towns have free parking?
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The latest round in the longtime fight between people in South Carolina who can afford to live at the beach and people who want to visit is over free beach parking.
A Senate subcommittee Tuesday unanimously approved a bill requiring local governments to get permission from the state before altering or changing any parking on state roads or blocking a road owned by South Carolina.
And senators and state Transportation Committee Secretary Christy Hall left little doubt the chief goal of the legislation was to help uphold a long cherished belief— and established in state law — that once public access is allowed to the beach it must always be maintained.
“The beaches belong to everybody. If you cut off parking, you’re cutting off access to the beach,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, who sponsored the bill.
The barrier islands around Charleston have a long tradition of allowing people to park on the side of state owned roads, pop open the hatchback or truck, pull out some towels and coolers and head for the waves and sand.
But as the Isle of Palms, Sullivans Island and Folly Beach have grown and big mansions have replaced beach bungalows, traffic snarls on the islands during peak sunny summer weekends as people look for the free spots instead of the $15 or so a day at city owned lots.
The people with the $1 million-plus homes said they have the right to control what happened in their own local governments. Parking and other restrictions are necessary for safety because how can fire trucks or paramedics make quick trips down snarled streets?
The COVID-19 pandemic was the spark that brought the issue before the Senate subcommittee Tuesday. As the virus first spread, the barrier islands restricted parking and for weeks even closed highways leading to the island for visitors out of fear of spreading the virus.
But as it became clear a day in the sun was good for mental health and a lot less likely to cause new infections, the islands were slow to remove barricades and sought to make the parking changes permanent.
That led to the founding of a group called the Charleston Beach Foundation, which organized to flood local meetings on barrier islands and eventually sue the Isle of Palms.
Myra Jones told senators Tuesday that the island governments line their pockets with parking revenue families who can’t afford a hotel or beach vacation could have spent at local businesses. She gave them a report showing the Isle of Palms made more than $700,000 on parking fees last year.
“The money you saved to buy an ice cream cone or a hot dog from a local businesses goes to the parking kiosk,” Jones said.
No one from any of the barrier islands spoke Tuesday. Scott Slatton of the South Carolina Municipal Association asked lawmakers to be careful so inland cities don’t lose their autonomy in deciding when to move parking meters or eliminate street parking as part of downtown renovations.
The barrier islands have mostly rolled back the pandemic parking restrictions. But state transportation officials said the law is needed to make sure the problem does not crop up again.
State transportation employees “pinched our noses” at the restrictions at first because the pandemic was so unprecedented and different, Hall said. Before the pandemic, the state had tried to stay out of local decisions as long as the highways were kept clear and safe, the secretary said.
“For lack of a better term, maybe they had taken advantage of a system we had in place,” Hall said.
Senators noted that no one from the barrier islands came Tuesday.
“The actions that many of those communities took in my area were unforgivable. Please pass that on in the strongest sense,” said Republican Sen. Sean Bennett of Summerville. “I would have shared that today if any of these island communities had chosen to be here.”
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.