By Brian Sherman, The Island Eye News Editor
Lowcountry residents are finally headed back to the beach, but it took a total of five emergency Council meetings and pressure from Charleston County and the town of Mount Pleasant to convince Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island officials to give their neighbors the opportunity to enjoy some time near the ocean.
At a special meeting May 4, the Isle of Palms Council voted 6-3 to remove the checkpoints that had been keeping nonresidents and others off the island, beginning May 6. The Council also cut the capacity of its main parking lot by 50%, permitted restaurants to serve customers outdoors and announced that the city would strictly enforce all parking and beach-related violations. The beach will be open only for running, walking, dog-walking, biking, surfing and other recreational activities “consistent with social distancing.” Sunbathing and groups of more than three people are prohibited.
Council members Phillip Pounds, Rusty Streetman and Randy Bell voted against the measure.
Meanwhile, at a May 4 meeting, the Sullivan’s Island Town Council loosened restrictions on entering the island, voting to maintain checkpoints from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., rather than from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. According to Town Administrator Andy Benke, all restrictions on access to the island will expire on May 12, “unless further action is taken by Council.”
The IOP Council acted after Charleston County threatened legal action if the town continued to restrict access to nonresidents.
At a lengthy emergency meeting May 2, Council members voted to maintain a checkpoint at the IOP Connector, allowing only residents, business owners and their employees, property owners and others working on the island to pass. At an April 28 meeting, the Council opted to man the barricades from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At its May 2 meeting, the IOP Council chose to maintain its ban on short-term rentals, even though Gov. Henry McMaster lifted the state’s prohibition against vacationers from around the country. A motion to open short-term rentals immediately failed by a 5-3 vote, with Mayor Jimmy Carroll, Kevin Popson and Jimmy Ward supporting the measure and John Moye, Susan Smith, Randy Bell, Rusty Streetman and Phillip Pounds voting no.
Moments later, everyone but Popson agreed to assemble a task force made up of representatives of the health care and rental communities and “anyone else staff thinks appropriate” to determine the guidelines rental property managers must follow. The goal was to re-open short-term rentals before May 12, the original date for the expiration of the city’s ban.
Ryan Buckhannon did not vote on any of these issues because he owns rental property on Isle of Palms.
Heeding the advice of Police Chief Kevin Cornett, who said he needed time to schedule personnel and set up equipment, the Council voted to restrict access until May 12 and to cut the number of parking spaces on the island, eliminating parking on the land side of Palm Boulevard and on 3rd through 9th avenues and cutting the capacity of the municipal lot in half.
IOP’s action followed a resolution approved by the Mount Pleasant Town Council, asking that its residents be permitted to walk, run or bike across the Connector and onto Sullivan’s Island as well. The IOP Council said no to that request before it was officially made, voting 5-4 April 28 to squash an amendment that would have permitted exercisers to cross over onto the island any time of the day or night. Ward, Popson, Buckhannon and Carroll voted yes, while Pounds, Smith, Moye, Bell and Streetman opposed the measure.
The non-binding resolution did not accuse the IOP Council of doing anything unconstitutional or illegal, according to Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie.
“We would like to find a way to get beach access back to our citizens,” he said. “It’s not a demand. We’re doing the same thing they are. We’re trying to figure out a balanced approach so we don’t have to shut the town down again.”
Councilman Jake Rambo was not as collegial. He said he has heard from a large number of Mount Pleasant residents who want to spend some time at the beach.
“I’ve been speaking with county and state officials, and, while the governor’s order gave cities the right to block public access to the beach, they don’t think that applies to unequal access,” Rambo said. “Either the beach should be closed or open. Mount Pleasant residents feel like Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island don’t have any incentive to open the beach any time soon. They have a taxpayer-funded private island.”
Mount Pleasant’s original resolution asked that the beaches be open to everyone all the time, but Gary Santos presented an amendment asking only that runners, bikers and walkers be allowed to pass through the checkpoint on the Connector.
“That would show that we are willing to work with them,” Santos said.
The amended resolution eventually passed by a unanimous vote.
At its May 2 meeting, the IOP Council voted down one final effort to relax the restrictions on visitors and local businesses. Buckhannon presented a motion that would have allowed non-residents to pass through the checkpoint to eat lunch at one of the island’s restaurants. Eateries across the state were permitted by the governor to start seating customers outdoors, beginning May 4.
“The restaurants are trying to make it. They need all the help they can get,” he said.
Despite support from Ward, Popson and Carroll, the motion failed by a 5-4 count. As he realized where the roll-call vote was headed, Ward voiced his opinion on the situation.
“This is unreal,” he said.