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Editorial: Charleston beach access isn't getting any easier, so prepare for the chaos

Isle of Palms

The S.C. Department of Transportation recently installed concrete parking blocks off Palm Boulevard on the Isle of Palms to define diagonal parking spaces along that state-owned street. Robert Behre/Staff

One of the earliest signs of a budding conflict over driving to a Charleston area beach was actually a missing sign.

In May 1962, the repeated theft of street signs on Sullivan’s Island made headlines; more than 30 had been stolen in recent months, costing the town about $500 and causing headaches for local officials, such as Assistant Fire Chief James J. Rowland, who also painted the town’s signs.

“We don’t put those signs up just to decorate the area,” he told a News and Courier reporter. “They are there for a specific and important purpose.” One missing sign warned of parking that blocked a beach access road. “The road,” he said, “is used to get emergency equipment to the water in case of drowning or other emergencies. To block that road could easily cost someone’s life.”

Suffice it to say the challenges around local beach access have evolved since then, but as many will discover as this Memorial Day weekend rolls around and as the weather and water get warmer, they certainly haven’t gotten any easier.

In fact, the tension between island residents and the growing number of people who drive to these communities to spend a day at the beach reached a crescendo last year, after several barrier island leaders voted to restrict access significantly as COVID-19 arrived. Those restrictions were peppered with growing tensions over where day-trippers may and may not park their cars — and how much they may be charged to park.

The dust-up even led to a new state law, sponsored by state Sen. Larry Grooms, whose district includes Mount Pleasant and some residents most upset by the new limits on access. The law, which Gov. Henry McMaster signed last week, clarifies that the S.C. Department of Transportation has the right to do what it always thought it had the right to do: namely, veto any parking restrictions island communities want to place on state-owned roads.

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That strikes us as a reasonable response: It doesn’t violate the concept of Home Rule, since it applies only to roads that are owned and maintained by the state. And it ensures public access to our public beaches won’t be excessively curtailed by local regulations — at least not on state roads. Beach communities unable to get the state’s blessing on plans to restrict parking have the option of working with the Transportation Department to transfer ownership of the roads at issue.

In fact, our beach access is getting curtailed by the simple forces of supply and demand, as our region grows in residents and its appeal to visitors, increasing numbers of whom must vie for space on beaches that aren’t getting any longer or wider or more numerous. And the problem is more acute on the roads, where parking and traffic lead to significant congestion, than on the sand itself.

We’re encouraged that CARTA launched a new summer weekend shuttle bus from Mount Pleasant to the Isle of Palms today, and we’re pleased that both Mount Pleasant and the Isle of Palms agreed to chip in so the shuttle can be free — a perk that we hope will persuade more people to leave their cars at Mount Pleasant’s Towne Centre shopping area and ride the shuttle. This obviously won’t solve the problem, but every little bit helps.

Getting to and from the beach is only part of the puzzle. The beaches also regulate things as varied as alcohol, pets, hole digging, fishing, shade devices, sand fencing, sea oats, metal detecting, fireworks and thongs. It behooves both vacationers and day-trippers to do a little homework ahead of time to make their trip to the shore as enjoyable and relaxing as possible.

South Carolina’s beaches certainly enhance our quality of life. But only 10 states grew faster than we did during the past decade, and while there are 10.7% more of us today than in 2010, our shoreline hasn’t changed much at all. So we need more planning and forethought about as how best to share these special places.

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