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Signs posted along both sides of Palm Boulevard on  Monday, July 27, 2020, eliminate the formerly free parking on the Isle of Palms. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

If not for our ongoing pandemic, Mount Pleasant would probably throw a parade for Sen. Larry Grooms.

The local lawmaker has proposed banning beach communities from charging for parking without state Department of Transportation approval. Which the Isle of Palms considered last year, enraging most of its neighbors.

Folks around here get pretty touchy about that sort of thing.

“When you eliminate access, you’re indirectly limiting access to the public beach,” Grooms says.

Yes, that’s a problem. But IOP Mayor Jimmy Carroll says the island has its own problems, and Grooms should come out and see for himself any Saturday or Sunday between Memorial Day and July Fourth.

“I’d like to invite Sen. Grooms and all state lawmakers to come out for lunch, on me, to see what we’re dealing with before they pass this law,” Carroll says. “We are not trying to limit access. Everybody has a right to come to the beach … but not at the same time.”

And that is the real problem. There’s no easy fix when unbridled growth meets finite resources, but we need to find one. For everybody’s sake.

Of course, both these public officials make excellent points. Grooms speaks for residents around the Lowcountry, who point out the beach belongs to everyone. Charging to park, particularly on public roads, seems like paying for access to your own backyard.

Grooms says he’s not opposed to all paid parking, but when it comes to any limit on beach parking, this becomes an issue of fairness. And also, politics.

“When the state budget is divvied up, there is bipartisan support for Lowcountry beach renourishment,” Grooms says. “But when legislators come down and have a hard time parking, it doesn’t help our case.”

He’s right. Hard as this may be to believe, Charleston isn’t universally beloved at the Statehouse.

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Many local officials share Grooms’ view, which is why Mount Pleasant officials have been particularly supportive. Town Council passed a resolution in favor of the senator's legislation Tuesday night.

“Local beach access is a quality of life issue that played an important role in the decision of many to choose Mount Pleasant as their residence,” Mayor Will Haynie says. “Sen. Grooms’ bill recognizes the rights of all South Carolina citizens to have access to the beaches they own via the roads they own.”

Mayor Carroll gets that, he really does. And City Council has backed off limiting or charging for parking. But make no mistake, the island is taking a loss. Just last July, the city hauled off a record amount of beachgoers’ trash. And that was during a pandemic.

Traffic backs up every weekend in season to the point residents — or emergency vehicles — can’t get through. It’s a quality of life issue for IOP, too, one Carroll compares to the cruise ship conundrum in downtown Charleston. Fair point.

Grooms’ legislation is likely to pass — and not just because he’s the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. Everybody in the state eventually comes to the beach, and no one likes to pay for parking.

But even though this legislation is aimed at IOP, it could have an impact on other islands … since the state owns just about every road in South Carolina (which is a whole other issue).

On Sullivan’s Island, it could derail plans from some local officials to charge for parking. Which would delight the gang at Dunleavy’s Pub and most other Middle Street businesses.

And Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin says his island, which offers its fair share of free parking, could end up sued for the spots it does charge for.

Goodwin says Grooms’ legislation didn’t look too bad until the part that says “parking on state highway facilities located on barriers is free and any restrictions may only be made by the DOT.”

“My question is, if we can’t charge for parking, is the state going to come and provide services?” Goodwin says. “I’m not going to spend my taxpayers’ money.”

And that, in a nutshell, is Carroll’s point. The beaches belong to everyone, but island residents pick up the tab for all the public safety and clean-up that those folks depend on. That isn’t fair, either.

Perhaps Grooms and other lawmakers should take lunch at IOP with Carroll. We need all hands on deck to figure out how South Carolina fits an ever-increasing population onto the same amount of beach we had 25 years ago.

Because that is everyone’s problem.

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