Disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic speed up trends already in progress, and that should be perfectly clear to anyone who has tried recently to drive out to the Isle of Palms to spend time on the beach. Under emergency auspices due to COVID-19, the City Council undertook a draconian and unwise step to eliminate most free parking.
The decision is regrettable not only because there was little notice the City Council would consider such a step before its July 15 meeting but also because it is heavy-handed. The elimination of free parking, most notably along Palm Boulevard, remains in effect 24 hours a day; even when the city restricted nonresidents at the start of the pandemic, they were allowed on the island after 7 p.m. (and eventually after 5 p.m.).
But it’s mostly wrongheaded because the move in effect funnels all nonresidents to front beach, the commercial strip of the city near where the Isle of Palms connector empties out. The city’s elimination of all but 10 of its 562 free parking spots channels all day-trippers to the paid parking in the front beach area. We urge City Council to soften it soon, possibly by allowing parking on the beach side of Palm Boulevard, or at least let it expire as scheduled on Aug. 16.
Essentially, COVID-19 has sped up action on long-standing tensions between residents and day-trippers. It’s understandable that island residents are concerned about crowding and the spread of the coronavirus, and we realize the island wrestled with significant gridlock in May when nonresidents were allowed back on the island throughout the day — though stiffer parking fines seem to have solved that problem.
But there is no getting around the fact that this is a public beach. And residents in Mount Pleasant and beyond who want to enjoy a public beach have just as much legal right to enjoy it as island residents. They rightly see it as important to their quality of life, perhaps even the main reason they chose to live where they do. Forcing them into a minimal number of paid parking spaces during a summer season when all of us are wrestling with cabin fever is wrong.
So it’s no surprise that most of the 139 public comments presented during Tuesday’s council meeting blasted the city’s new parking rules. Those comments likely would have come two weeks earlier had it been clear that significant parking restrictions would be considered on July 15. Instead, the published agenda that day only said council members would consider an emergency ordinance to ban coolers, chairs and umbrellas on the beach and ban live amplified music after 9 p.m., and limit indoor occupancy at restaurants and bars to 50% of their normal limit — all perfectly reasonable restrictions in a pandemic.
For most, the parking decision came out of the blue and has created understandable blowback. The Post and Courier’s David Slade reports that one Daniel Island resident complained that her husband and son, both paramedics, could come to the Isle of Palms to care for sick and injured “but are unable to find a place to park if they want to enjoy the beach.”
Of course, the bigger looming question is what parking will look like once the pandemic is over. City Council eventually could return most, if not all, of the 552 parking spaces it has eliminated, but they might not be free of charge next year.
The S.C. Department of Transportation once forbid the city to charge for parking there unless it made substantial improvements to Palm Boulevard, but it has since changed course. The idea of charging for parking there, likely to be done through a smartphone app, is not unreasonable if the revenue is channeled into improving the street with bike lanes and safer, better-marked parking spots — improvements that would benefit day-trippers and residents alike. Or if the revenue helped underwrite some sort of public shuttle to the beach during peak times. In any case, there’s time for debate to continue as the city refines its 2021 paid parking plans.
What’s most concerning now are the restrictions that seem to use COVID-19 as a clumsy, ill-conceived excuse to restrict visitors to the beach. It’s unclear if the new parking restrictions are a legal overstep by the Isle of Palms, which receives public money for beach renourishment and is subject to the state’s Beachfront Management Act. What is clear is that the city will have a chance to back off well before any legal challenge could wend its way through the courts.
And that’s exactly what it should do.