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SCDOT tells Isle of Palms to restore beach parking, rolls back prior approval

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Houses along the beach on Isle of Palms are pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The city's 2020 plan to eliminate hundreds of beach parking spaces prompted a lawsuit, state legislation, and in February 2021, a Department of Transportation decision to revoke approval of the town's 2015 parking plan, which created extensive resident-only parking areas. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

ISLE OF PALMS — The fight over South Carolina beach parking has taken another sharp turn after the state Department of Transportation revoked its approval of the island's 2015 parking plan that barred nonresidents from using spaces on most streets.

The barrier island across from Mount Pleasant has been the subject of intense blowback after announcing plans in 2020 to eliminate hundreds of parking spaces near the popular beach — a plan the DOT also blocked.

The IOP town government already is facing a parking lawsuit, and statewide legislation over beach parking issues has been introduced with the IOP's actions in mind. And now the DOT plans to take a broad look at parking plans it previously approved near public beaches.

That could include resident-only parking areas but also examining paid parking rates in places including Myrtle Beach, DOT Secretary Christy Hall told The Post and Courier.

Hall said previous state approvals of parking plans focused on traffic flow, without considering whether the plans were fair for all state residents. That was an error, she said.

Right now, Isle of Palms is the focus of the state's attention, with Hall saying the parking rules there are potentially unconstitutional. That attention, and the plan to "revoke the full approval" of the parking plan that keeps nonresidents off neighborhood streets, prompted Isle of Palms City Council to vote unanimously Tuesday night to work with DOT on alternatives.

The decision came after a 100-minute executive session where council members discussed the issue privately with legal staff. The special meeting was held the day after the city received a letter from Hall.

"I am of the opinion that the 2015 plan has improperly designated a significant number of state-owned highway right of ways as 'resident only parking' potentially denying nonresidents their constitutional guaranty of equality and privilege," Hall said in the letter to Isle of Palms officials Monday.

That's a stark reversal of DOT's opinion in 2015 when then-Secretary of Transportation Janet Oakley said the plan "appears to provide an excellent way for the city to address the issues of summer traffic."

Most roads in South Carolina are state roads, and state approval is required for parking restrictions or paid parking.

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The city of Isle of Palms raised parking rates and doubled fines as of May 30, 2020. File

A revocation of Isle of Palms' 2015 parking plan could potentially allow nonresident parking across the island. Hall said DOT hopes to work with the city on a plan for angled parking on the land side of Palm Boulevard, which would restore some parking on the road closest to the beach.

Prior to Tuesday's council meeting, Mayor Jimmy Carroll expressed frustration.

“They are basically cramming whatever they want down our throats," he said. “They basically want us to come up with more parking or they will revoke our 2015 parking plan."

Hall said she hoped to "trigger some dialogue" with Isle of Palms, and that's what City Council agreed to Tuesday, faced with the states' threat.

The Charleston Beach Foundation, a nonprofit group created in response to Isle of Palms' parking restrictions in 2020, is "thrilled and appreciative" of DOT's actions, the group said in a statement.

The group filed suit against Isle of Palms after the city in July 2020 temporarily prohibited nonresidents from using 763 parking spots, including all but 10 free parking spaces on the island. That case is pending.

Many of South Carolina's barrier islands have struggled to manage traffic and parking during beach season as the populations of coastal areas have soared. Isle of Palms, for example, has about 4,300 residents. Mount Pleasant, which connects to the island by bridge, now has about 90,000.

“Our beaches are full in the summer and they want to cram more in there," Carroll said. "I invite (state Sen. Larry) Grooms to come out in July and get a taste of what we are dealing with."

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Midafternoon traffic crowds Palm Boulevard as visitors head to the beach on Isle of Palms during Memorial Day weekend in 2020. The state Department of Transportation revoked its approval of the island's 2015 parking plan. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Grooms, R-Bonneau, is the sponsor of legislation that would clarify the state's existing right to regulate parking on state roads.

“We’re taking existing law, a Supreme Court decision and an Attorney General’s opinion, and wrapping it all up so that someone can point to that law," Grooms said. "It’s making the law clear."

He added, “No one is trying to open up all the streets on Isle of Palms for public parking."

Hall said reviews of beach parking in other communities will follow, including a look at paid parking rates on state roadsides.

South Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall's Feb. 1 letter to Isle of Palms, invalidating the state's previous approval of the city's 2015 parking plan, which eliminated some beach parking for non-residents.

Isle of Palms raised parking meter rates by 25 percent in 2020. The city expects to collect about $1 million from parking kiosks and lots yearly, which is double the amount the city has said it spends on "beach visitor support" — parking management, beach service officers, beach cleanup, public restrooms and related capital costs.

Isle of Palms' paid parking areas are on town-owned roads, but some beach communities do have paid parking on the sides of state roads.

“We’ve never really lifted the hood on the rates and looked at the equity issue prior to this happening with Isle of Palms," Hall said. “I feel like we have an obligation to look at the rates that are being charged for parking in the right of way on state highways."

She said that's likely to include a look at rates charged in Myrtle Beach "at some point in time."

As the clash between the island and the Transportation Department continues, highway officials are also working on a plan to improve bicycle and pedestrian access to Isle of Palms across the IOP Connector.

Carroll said the city just learned of that a week ago and he's concerned the plan would reduce the emergency lane down the center of the bridge.

"That emergency lane is so critical, especially during the summertime," he said.

The island and surrounding communities have encouraged ways to get to the beach that don't require parking, including a shuttle bus from Mount Pleasant and encouraging bicycling. Carroll said any plans to improve bike and pedestrian access should focus on the north side of the bridge because it connects to sidewalks on the island.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

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