Kiawah Island may have the ninth-best beach in America, but if you don’t get into the parking lot early, you may not see it.
Town officials have decided to end the habit of allowing a long queue of cars to line up in a “waiting” position just outside the entry gate into Charleston County’s Beachwalker Park.
Mayor Steven Orban said the change, known as the “no-idling” rule, is being enforced for safety, clutter and environmental reasons.
For starters, it became common practice for families waiting to get in to let their children out of cars and play in the street until it was time to move up in the waiting line, he said.
That idling also created problems with exhaust and giving emergency vehicles access.
Orban said the angled, off-street parking spots on the grass just before the park entrance will remain, and Town Hall will offer 60 spots for overflow. But once these options fill up, late-comers are on their own to find a place to bide their time elsewhere until a legitimate parking spot comes open.
Otherwise, cars waiting on Beachwalker Drive will have to turn around and come back at a later time.
“I know people who drive 30 miles are going to be upset they can’t go to the beach,” he said, “but we’re doing the best we can do.”
The change promises to anger the beach-going public on today’s holiday and into the weekend. That’s because most have to drive more than 10 miles to reach Beachwalker — what Florida International University professor Steven “Dr. Beach” Leatherman has labeled one of the most ideal beaches on the Atlantic Coast.
“You can imagine what families and kids are going to be saying, ‘Are we going in yet? Are we going in yet?’?” Beachwalker visitor Boyd Schuler said Tuesday of the expected wait times.
Some Beachwalker veterans, such as John and Sandra Casullo, said they already have seen the parking area and its 150 paved spots get overrun.
“We won’t come on a Saturday,” John Casullo said, pointing to their 18-mile drive from West Ashley. “We won’t chance it.”
Part of the problem is that more pressure has fallen on Beachwalker as a go-to site for families after the Folly Beach County Park was shut down following Hurricane Irene last August.
Subsequent erosion washed the Folly parking lot away, taking out more than 200 spots.
Tom O’Rourke, executive director of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, which runs Beachwalker, said he plans to meet with Kiawah officials next week about the problem.
“If they don’t want cars waiting on the side of the road, I get that. We need to fix the problem ourselves,” he said. “The only thing we can do is go by the rules Kiawah tells us to go by.”
O’Rourke said the bigger issue is the limited amount of public parking at local beaches, which serve a growing regional population.
“The real problem is so much bigger than (at Kiawah),” he said. “There are more people who want to go to the beach than there are beach parking lots.”
On weekends it is not uncommon for traffic to begin lining up before the park gate opens at 9 a.m., officials said.
O’Rourke said running a shuttle from the agency’s Mullet Hall Equestrian Center a few miles away might be part of the solution. “We need to think of different things we can do,” he said.
O’Rourke declined to criticize Kiawah for its new policy of turning cars away. “It would be different if we thought they didn’t want us down there or they didn’t want the public down there, but that is not the case,” he said.
Some visitors already have experienced seeing the parking lot get filled early and are prepared for it, knowing that sometimes it is better to come in the afternoon when the morning crush subsides.
Around midday, “there’s a mass exodus of kids that have to leave to get out of the sun,” said Callie Baldwin, who was visiting the park Tuesday with her husband and three children.