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Parking Battle Heats Up

By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News

During the summer of 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Isle of Palms City Council eliminated some parking spaces along Palm Boulevard.  

The Lowcountry weather remained cool as the calendar rolled over from January to February, but the battle heated up over whether the city of Isle of Palms has the right to limit and charge for parking along state-owned roads on the island.

Legislation that would prohibit IOP and Sullivan’s Island from reducing the number of parking spaces on the islands and charging visitors to park on state roads already was moving forward in the State Senate when the South Carolina Department of Transportation officially joined the fray. In a Feb. 1 letter to IOP Mayor Jimmy Carroll and the City Council, Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall said the DOT no longer agrees with a plan submitted by the city and approved by the state agency six years ago.

“SCDOT intends to revoke the full approval of the parking plan implemented by the city in 2015,” the letter said. “I am of the opinion that the 2015 plan has improperly designated a significant number of state-owned highway rights of ways as ‘resident only parking,’ potentially denying non-residents their constitutional guaranty of equality and privilege.”

At a special IOP Council meeting the day after the letter was received, Carroll pointed out that the city’s parking plan, approved by Hall in a letter dated Jan. 9, 2015, when she was deputy secretary for engineering, cost more than $250,000 to develop and that IOP has spent approximately $1.6 million to implement the plan. After an hour and 40 minutes, Council members emerged from executive session and unanimously approved a motion presented by Council Member John Moye to “authorize the city administrator and the mayor to engage with the SCDOT, as they suggest in their letter, to collaboratively develop alternative strategies consistent with recommendations from the Council.”

Carroll drove to Columbia Feb. 3 to attend a meeting of the Transportation Committee, chaired by State Sen. Larry Grooms, author of the bill that would limit IOP’s authority over parking on the island. The mayor said he hoped to discuss the situation with Hall the morning of Feb. 8 at the annual meeting of the South Carolina Beach Advocates.

“It’s all social media driven with pressure on senators to do this,” Carroll commented. “The IOP City Council is working on an alternative strategy to try to satisfy SCDOT. Unbridled growth is negatively impacting our beaches.”

“I applaud the City Council back in 2014 and 2015 who worked on creating a parking plan that the SCDOT applauded us for,” he added. “But now they feel it’s unfair and unconstitutional. I also applaud the Council that passed the referendum to buy the parking lots on Front Beach. We bought them knowing they would be used for nonresidents. How many communities look to the future that way?”

The city of Isle of Palms paid more than $1.6 million for the land for the two Front Beach parking lots – and the area now occupied by its public safety building – following a referendum in 1987. The lots can accommodate 320 vehicles, another 141 can park in metered spaces along Ocean Boulevard at Front Beach and Charleston County’s nearby lot has 441 spots. In all, there are 1,582 parking places on the island, which, according to Carroll, is seven-and-a-half times the number required by the South Carolina Beachfront Management Act.

Grooms’ legislation has received enthusiastic support from the Charleston Area Public Beach Access and Parking Group, an organization formed “to help keep the beaches as accessible as possible to everyone.”

Grooms commented that Hall’s Feb. 1 letter “underscores what we are trying to do – to make sure public access is available at Isle of Palms and other barrier islands.” He saw no problem with the SCDOT revoking its approval of IOP’s 2015 plan.

“One thing that was not taken into consideration in that plan was the rights of nonresidents to be able to park on the right of way. The plan was approved to make sure there were no safety issues. It didn’t receive any scrutiny beyond safety,” Grooms added.

It appears that the IOP Council might have an ally when S. 40 reaches the House of Representatives. State Rep. Joe Bustos isn’t sure Grooms’ legislation is right for his district, which includes Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and parts of Mount Pleasant.

“I’m trying to understand what they want to accomplish. Is it more parking places, more free parking or what?” he asked.

He said he requested information on the study the Department of Transportation used to determine that IOP’s parking plan was no longer adequate, only to find out that there was no study. He said that if the objective is to increase the number of parking places at the beach, that scenario will lead to additional traffic issues on both islands and in Mount pleasant as well and added that local governments should have the authority to do what’s best for their residents.

“I’ve always thought each municipality should have the ability to govern themselves,” Bustos commented. “It’s been perfectly fine until this group (the Charleston Area Public Beach Access and Parking Group) came along. No one has denied them access to the beach.”

He added: “And my thought is that because Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and Mount Pleasant are all in District 112, I should have been included in the discussions. I wasn’t.”

In her Jan. 9, 2015, letter to then-IOP Mayor Dick Cronin, Hall said: “It appears that you, the City Council and your staff have developed a plan that should help the city manage resident and visitor parking demands well into the future. SCDOT staff has reviewed your proposal, and we find that it is within the purview of municipal authorities contained in the South Carolina Code section 5-29-30 to regulate on-street parking within your jurisdictional boundaries. … We also recognize that any public concern or equal protection challenges are the city’s responsibility, and the Department will not enter into any resulting actions.”

In her Feb. 1, 2021, letter, Hall pointed out that “SCDOT has not identified any safety issues along SC 703 (Palm Boulevard) that would warrant the permanent elimination or significant restriction of public parking.”

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