The first and biggest controversy was in 2020: Isle of Palms got rid of hundreds of parking spots, claiming they created a public safety risk because visitors frequently jaywalked across a busy thoroughfare. Then, the island was forced by the state to add them back in early 2021.
The dust settled — an entire summer season has passed — but plenty of people still aren’t happy. New fronts have opened up in the war for preserving “free” beach access in Charleston for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit each year.
The Charleston Beach Foundation, a group dedicated to fighting for beach access, is going after parking tickets in beach towns, which frequently cost two to three times more compared to the state’s average. The parking group wants those fines lowered to levels comparable to the rest of the state.
The group is also still fighting for more parking spots on Isle of Palms, even after its past wins against the city.
And while most of the attention has been on Isle of Palms, the foundation is now targeting Folly Beach, which has recently added new nonresident parking restrictions.
Both the Charleston Beach Foundation and the mayors of Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach say they want to find solutions to the parking problems facing the beaches. Isle of Palms’ new mayor even said he wants “peace” after the previous administration had a particularly contentious relationship with outsiders.
Is that really the case, though? Or are the sides more entrenched than ever?
Parking tickets on Charleston’s beaches
It’s just a fact: Parking tickets on Isle of Palms and Folly Beach are a lot more expensive than elsewhere in the state. Even the islands’ mayors admit it.
The islands charge upwards of $60-100 per ticket, depending on the kind of parking violation. The rest of the state, on average, charges about $30 for parking infractions.
Parking tickets can be issued for a variety of reasons, including parking in a handicap spot without proper identification, parking too far into the street and parking where it is otherwise not allowed (such as nonresidents parking on certain Isle of Palms streets).
The fines in the beach towns are so high in some instances that state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, contacted South Carolina’s attorney general to see whether they were legal. The attorney general’s office said it believed the fines were likely unlawful under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars governments from imposing “excessive fines.” However, the office also said it would leave a final determination up to the courts.
“We have asked the Councils of these municipalities to reduce their fines to ‘fair and reasonable,’ but have not received a reply, and the fines remain the same exorbitant rates,” the Charleston Beach Foundation said in a statement. “Many people avoid going to the beaches they love because they fear getting a parking ticket. With so many on limited budgets, a $60 or $100 ticket is enough to keep them away. This is a shame.”
The mayors of Isle of Palms and Folly Beach say the issue isn’t that clear cut, though.
Yes, the fines for breaking parking laws in their jurisdictions are much higher than the rest of the state, but they say it’s necessary.
“If you don’t charge enough to get people’s attention, then they’ll just break the rules,” Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin said.
Isle of Palms Mayor Phillip Pounds echoed his sentiment. He said he wished the situation could be different, but he said the city must do what it must to ensure people get the message and follow the rules.
“I agree with Mayor Goodwin because what we experienced when (parking fines) were significantly lower was exactly what he says, ‘I can either pay a fine or I can pay to park, and it’s about the same thing. So what difference does it make if I’m coming over for the day or whatever?’” Pounds said. “There needed to be a deterrent, in our opinion, to get people to park properly.”
Can Isle of Palms escape the drama?
The previous mayor of Isle of Palms, Jimmy Carroll, was a lightning rod for controversy when it came to parking. Never afraid to speak his mind, he notoriously — and repeatedly — suggested residents of Summerville, a town outside of Charleston, should find another beach to visit.
Pounds, elected in November, said he’d like to chart a new path, one that is less contentious with his beach’s visitors. He said the height of the parking wars in 2020, as COVID-19 raged and getting outside was one of the few ways to enjoy life safely, was a terrible time to be having contentious discussions about beach access.
Pounds said he recognizes that his island can’t survive without its visitors. The businesses on Isle of Palms’ main strip need beachgoers coming through the doors in the spring, summer, fall and even winter to keep those doors open, he said.
“There’s no way there are enough residents on this island to support all those businesses 12 months a year,” Pounds said. “We have to have visitors.”
In some ways, Pounds is a visitor himself, having grown up in Texas and Louisiana, far from the sands of the East Coast, long before moving to Isle of Palms. He finds himself in a dilemma, trying to balance the desires of the people who elected him with the demands of the people who flock to Isle of Palms’ shores from the outside.
“The folks that elected me are the residents of this island, and those are who I answer to, in my opinion,” he said. “But again, we will do everything we can to enhance people’s experience and make it a pleasant experience.”
There are some issues he still stands by — issues that he and the Charleston Beach Foundation will have to agree to disagree on. Parking tickets are one. Another is the 2015 beach parking plan, which banned parking on a host of residential streets except those closest to the beach. The foundation wants the plan gone, but Pounds? He supports it still.
Pounds says it’s fine that Isle of Palms had to make accommodations — adding back the Palm Boulevard parking it tried and failed to take away in 2020 — but he still wants to keep visitors off as many residential streets as possible. His preference, really, is to keep visitors parking as close to the beaches as possible.
“It’s also also still a very residential island in some parts — kids playing and bikes and basketball goals. It’s a public safety issue to a large extent,” he said. “We’re trying to keep parking closer to the beach, all up and down Palm Boulevard, so that the experience for the beachgoer is they’re not walking miles to get to a beach.”
Little has changed since the the Charleston Beach Foundation began its parking war two years ago — and it still doesn’t trust the Isle of Palms.
Most importantly, the 2015 parking plan was and is public enemy No. 1.
“We need more parking on the rights of way on these public roads,” the foundation said in a statement. “Additionally, some landowners have placed encroachments or obstructions into the public rights of way, intentionally or unintentionally, which take away parking for nonresidents.”
The Charleston Beach Foundation points out that most of the roads on Isle of Palms are owned by the state, which it says gives visitors greater rights to park on them.
“Our area has grown tremendously since 2015 and the demand for access to our state’s public beaches has grown as well,” the group said in a statement. “We all pay taxes to pay for the installation and maintenance of these roads, and we feel that every citizen of the state should be allowed to park on the state road rights of way. These roads and the rights of way are not private, and no one should have rights or privileges to them which are denied to others.”
Grooms, the state senator from Charleston, said it’s important to strike a balance between the needs of residents and visitors. His district covers Isle of Palms, and last year he pushed through a bill that ensured local jurisdictions cannot just take away parking on state roads without any oversight. And he maintains that parking fees should only be used to pay for maintenance of those same parking spots.
“I would like to see more public parking, but I’m not going to force any more public parking on the government of Isle of Palms than what’s already there. I was really just trying to preserve the status quo when they tried to eliminate it altogether,” Grooms said. “I think there’s a compelling statewide interest that no coastal community is basically turned into a private island, denying the rest of the citizens access to our beaches.”
If you ask Pounds, he’s quick to remind that Isle of Palms has 1,700 public parking spaces, half of which are free.
“The 1,700 spots we offer on the Isle of Palms is about eight times the required amount by state law,” he said. “The city bought two very valuable pieces of property a number of years ago and turned them into parking lot. I mean, we could have developed those or done whatever we wanted to.
“We want people to have a good experience. We want people to come back, for sure. We’re doing everything we can to make that happen but at the same time protect the residential nature of parts of our island, too.”
The Charleston Beach Foundation says it fears waking up someday and all of the free public parking on the beach will be gone. Any encroachment, no matter how small, is a threat. Their latest skepticism? Why did Isle of Palms add new pedestrian crossings to Palm Boulevard instead of parking spots? They noted the crossings take up 260 feet of space that could be parking instead.
“Is this just another way to keep ‘day-trippers’ from parking in front of residents’ homes?” the group said in a statement.
The foundation’s criticisms aren’t empty threats. It still has pending litigation against Isle of Palms and the 2015 parking plan years after the controversy began.
Restrictions and distrust on Folly Beach
Isle of Palms might have spent most of the last couple years in the Charleston Beach Foundation’s sights, but that doesn’t mean the group isn’t keeping an eye on the other islands.
Now, the group is angry that Folly Beach added new restrictions for nonresidents who want to park on Center Street, the island’s main thoroughfare. Nonresidents can now only park for up to two hours.
“This restriction is discriminatory against nonresidents,” Charleston Beach Foundation said in a statement. “This is a state road and we should all have the same rights.”
The group said it has asked the South Carolina Department of Transportation to remove the restriction. The transportation department said the Center Street parking rules are under review.
Goodwin, the Folly Beach mayor, said the island added the two-hour limit to ensure the kind of turnover local businesses needed to reach high customer traffic.
“People would pull up there and go to the beach and stay all day,” Goodwin said. “What it is is a way to rotate the cars around for the businesses. It doesn’t affect that many parking spaces but at least it gives people a chance to get in and out for the restaurants and stuff.”
But the problems with Folly Beach don’t stop with Center Street. The Charleston Beach Foundation also questions why the island has added “golf-cart only” parking, which it said is effectively “residents-only” parking. Goodwin said the golf cart parking was added in areas where cars just really didn’t fit — and when people did park in those spots, they were ticketed if their car stuck out into the roadway.
“Nonresidents cannot ride their golf carts across the bridges to access the beaches. We feel golf-cart-parking-only is discriminatory,” the foundation said in a statement.
For his part, Goodwin has thrown up his hands at the foundation.
“These parking people are crazy,” he said. “They think that everything should be free. They shouldn’t have to do anything. They shouldn’t have to help pay to maintain parking spaces.”
Goodwin pointed out that it costs the town money to maintain the parking spots, pick up trash left by tourists and answer their emergency medical calls like when “they get stung by jellyfish.”
“You have to pay for all those services, and the way we help pay for them is through our parking program,” he said. “All the money from my parking program goes right back into tourism.”
Meanwhile, Sullivan’s Island has been able to dodge much of the parking drama. All of its street parking is free and has been that way for a long time.
“Last year, at this time, we were in the middle of a busy campaign season for county elections. And a couple of the incumbents had been very, very vocal supporters of a plan to go to paid parking on Sullivan’s Island,” Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neil said. “Those of us who were on the side of no paid parking, at least not now, were elected, or, in my case, reelected, and those who were promoting paid parking did not get elected.”