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Commentary: Folly Beach faces an existential question

Richard Beck

Former Folly Beach Mayor Richard Beck. Provided

To be a residential community or not to be? That is the question being asked in every community that is attractive to tourists. The more the attractiveness, the more urgent the question.

All across the nation, individual communities are struggling with how commercialized they are going to allow their residential areas to become. The unrestricted short-term rental market and COVID have unleashed an explosion of investor-owned short-term rentals. And these aren’t your mom’s vacation rentals.

They are sometimes very short term, as in a weekend for special occasions like weddings. They disrupt peace and quiet, challenge available parking and demand increased police and public works services. Investor-owned short-term rentals have morphed from the traditional way that people visit a desirable area into what is called, in planning parlance, an incompatible use.

The loss of quality of life associated with the proliferation of this breed of rental is causing the flight of peace-loving permanent residents, and with their loss, the irreplaceable fabric of the community. Folly has lost 10% of its permanent population in the last 10 years and may have already reached the tipping point at which the nature of the residential community has permanently changed to that of a commercial enterprise zone.

On the Isle of Palms, City Councilman Scott Pierce may have said it best: “I think we were a residential community with rentals, and I think we may become a rental community with residents.” Renters may love the community, but they can’t be the community. The community is the people who run the civic club, the garden club, the Exchange Club, the churches, the Halloween carnivals — all those things that are part and parcel of the essentials of home.

Some level of these short-term rentals is desirable, but the ill effects of their growing numbers force communities to find a balance between the livability of their community and the economic costs and disruption that this new iteration of residential commercialization brings. It's not going well on Folly.

Obviously, there has to be a limit to this type of commercialization, which means capping the growth of investor-owned short-term rentals. Based on the recommendations of an ad hoc short-term rentals study committee, Mayor Tim Goodwin introduced an ordinance to limit investor-owned short-term rentals to 800 or 33% of the housing stock — a pretty modest proposal. Five members of our City Council cut off all debate on his motion in what may have been a record-setting 127 seconds. No discussion, no alternatives, just a path to full commercialization of the residential areas and disaster for the Folly community.

In historical fashion, Folly’s citizens said, “I don’t think so,” and within two months presented a petition to City Council sanctioned by the initiative and referendum section of the Home Rule Act (5-17-10) with 469 voters' signatures that would limit investor-owned short-term rental licenses to 800 as the mayor requested.

In October, the mayor asked for a six-month moratorium on the granting of new licenses until the question was settled and was granted a three-month stay. The investors and Realtors favor no limits. They are trying to convince Folly’s citizens that having a community isn’t as important as money, and presenting a petition asking those same five members to remove the moratorium completely so they can stock up on investor-owned short-term rental licenses. Money plays rough.

Folly’s fate will be decided by a binding referendum after the signatures can be validated. I hope City Council will respect the initiative petition.

Has Folly reached the tipping point where money is more important than community? Stay tuned.

Richard Beck, a retired dentist, served 11 years on Folly Beach City Council, including seven years as mayor.

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