Pay volleyball out of bounds

The Charleston Beach and Volleyball Social Club sponsors a junior league for teen girls on Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. These pictures were taken last year by the club founder, Jeff Hefel.

Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island spiked a popular pay-for-play teen volleyball league because the organizer lacked municipal permits for the beach event.

In response, the organizer said Friday that he is debating whether to refund the $50-per-person entry fee, which would allow the league to play on the IOP.

“I’m not sure right now what I’m going to do,” said Jeff Hefel, founder of the Charleston Beach Volleyball and Social Club.

About 150 teen girls and 50 teams have been affected by the situation.

Paul Harrison of Mount Pleasant said his daughter, Hope Harrison, 13, was crushed at the initial news of the league being called off. “They just fall in love with playing on the beach. It’s an instant hit,” Harrison said.

Hefel said the junior league is for 12- to 18-year-olds.

“It’s lots of work. I don’t make any money. I just break even,” he said.

Hefel said the pay-for-play teen league happened without incident last summer.

IOP Town Administrator Linda Tucker said a parent recently brought the situation to the attention of the city.

Hefel said the league started play last week on Sullivan’s but authorities shut it down.

Charging to participate in the league makes it subject to municipal regulations that apply to commercial beach activities, regardless of whether money is exchanged on the beach, officials said.

“Sullivan’s Island certainly appreciates and encourages healthy outdoor activity,” said Town Administrator Andy Benke.

“However, it is necessary to treat all equally under the law and in that sense it is not possible to distinguish volleyball as a vendor from, say, someone that wanted to push a hot dog cart on the beach,” he said in an email.

Town rules require a permit for a pay-for-play volleyball league, and that was not obtained, he said.

He noted that the volleyball tournament does not have liability insurance. The town requires a permit for beach gatherings of 10 or more people and that was not obtained, he said.

Tucker said the teen tournament could be legally held on the beach if Hefel refunded the $50 entry fee to participants or if he obtained City Council approval for the event.

Charging a per-player entry fee makes the tournament a business on the beach, she said. “If there is going to be a fee for whatever, then it has to go through the (approval) process,” she said.

Under its ordinances, the city works to prevent commercialization of the beach, she said.

She said insurance and liability for the tournament also are issues. It is important to control commercial activity on the beach because of the demands it can place on city fire and police services, she said.

A spontaneous, pickup game of seaside volleyball would not be affected.

“The city is not against beach volleyball. We have no problems with anyone going down to the beach and playing volleyball,” she said.

Tucker said the issue occurs with other business enterprises on the beach such as ice cream vendors, fitness camps and surf camps. People who are new to the area think they see an opportunity to make money, she said.

Hefel said he has been organizing volleyball leagues on the islands for years without trouble.

Isle of Palms Mayor Dick Cronin said in an email to parents that the city contacted Hefel when it learned of the situation and explained to him why it was a problem under city ordinances.

“The City understands that rather than refunding money and going forward with the tournament with no business component to it, the organizer chose to move the tournament to Sullivan’s Island. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s Island has a similar ordinance,” Cronin said.

The tournament could happen on IOP if the money were refunded or if the organizer wins approval for it from City Council, he wrote.

Cronin said in an interview that the city is protecting the beach.

“We love volleyball. It’s just unfortunate they put it together this way,” he said.

The city fears that the situation sets a precedent for any number of tourist-related business on the beach such as selling sunscreen, lemonade, ice cream or beach toys.

“The city’s recent communications with Charleston Beach Volleyball and Social Club are not the result of a new decision or interpretation. Rather, the city was unaware of the... activity before,“ Cronin said in his email.

Hefel, Cronin and three parents of junior league players met Friday to discuss the situation.

Cronin said Hefel was given no assurances in the meeting that the league would be approved as a city-sponsored pay-for-play event, a process that would take two months. He was advised that the league could continue if the money was refunded, Cronin said.