City, carriage operators reach deal over jet runs

Tourist enjoy a carriage ride though downtown Charleston.

Leroy Burnell

A compromise has been reached between Charleston officials and carriage company operators to keep horse- and mule-drawn carriages off city streets during the Blue Angels' air shows this weekend, and during practice runs today and Friday.

In return, the carriage companies would be allowed to operate for one extra hour each evening in April 2011 in the city's historic residential district.

City Council would need to change the City Code to allow the change.

The tentative agreement comes after a contentious back-and-forth in which the city ordered the carriage companies to not operate when the jet-demonstration team is flying, only to have that directive overturned by three council members on a city committee Tuesday, over Mayor Joe Riley's objections.

On Wednesday morning, a representative of the city's five carriage companies, along with Riley and Traffic and Transportation Committee Chairman Blake Hallman, reached the compromise, according to Hallman and Tom Doyle Jr., manager of Palmetto Carriage.

"We're going to do a time trade," Doyle said. "We're going to go ahead and close when the city requested, and in return we'll get an extra hour of operation for the entire month of April next year."

The city's police, traffic, and tourism departments, along with the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, had said it would be best to keep the carriages from operating because the low- flying jets could spook the animals pulling the tourist-laden carriages.

The carriage companies objected, saying they had not been consulted, and that they were confident that their animals would behave.

A test had been planned for today in which carriages with drivers but no passengers would go out on the streets during test flights to see how the animals react. That test has been canceled because of the compromise.

The carriage companies are counting on the traffic committee to approve the deal at a 9:45 a.m. meeting Friday, and will have to trust that City Council will approve the extended operating hours next April at a future meeting.

"I'm looking forward to the official resolution on Friday morning to be an example of the city working with business," Hallman said. "To me, it is imperative that we honor this deal, on the city's side."

Hallman and other council members said Tuesday that a compromise might have been reached earlier if the administration had consulted with City Council and the carriage companies, rather than issuing a directive unilaterally.

Riley said the city had little time to prepare for the Blue Angels event and acted with public safety in mind.

The plan to allow carriage tours to operate until 7 p.m. next April could prove unpopular with lower peninsula residents.

"It is quite a concession to the carriage tour operators," said Councilman Gary White, who represents that area. "I think some of my constituents may have some level of concern about that.

"It is a one-shot deal, but I think some of my folks might have a concern that it could open the door to future concessions," he said.